IN THE COURTROOM, CLIMATE SCIENCE NEEDS SUBSTANCE AND STYLE
CHEVRON WOULD LIKE you to know that it believes in climate change. It also believes people cause it by burning carbon-based fuel—the kind Chevron extracts from the ground, refines, and sells. In fact, Chevron believes all this so hard that today its lawyer said so, in a federal court in San Francisco. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? Yup. They’re right.
That’s not as up-is-down as it might sound; Chevron representatives have said as much before. The follow-up questions, though, will be the tricky part. Because what was at stake in that courtroom was not whether the effects of climate change—sea level rise, ocean acidification, weather extremes, wildfires, disease outbreaks—are people’s fault. It was whether a lawsuit could show that specific effects (floods) are specific people’s fault. Specifically, the people at Chevron.
…and BP and ExxonMobil, because San Francisco and Oakland are suing those companies for money to build seawalls and other protective infrastructure. The idea isn’t just that petrochemical transnationals extract, produce, and sell the fuel that puts carbon into the atmosphere. It’s that they knew that was bad, kept doing it anyway, and cut ads and marketing that tried to convince people it wasn’t a problem.
But before they could really dig into that, the judge in the case, William Alsup, asked for what he termed a “tutorial.” On March 6, he sent the lawyers on both sides a list of nine questions digging into the basic history and science of climate change (Number two: What is the molecular difference by which CO2 absorbs infrared radiation but oxygen and nitrogen do not?), with a special eye on sea level rise. Which is as odd as it sounds.