Justice Department Brief Defends Oil Companies against California City Lawsuits

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The Department of Justice last week filed an amicus brief supporting oil companies’ motion to dismiss claims by the cities of Oakland and San Francisco that the firms owe those cities big bucks for climate change damages.

The theory underlying the cities’ litigation is that climate change endangers coastal property by accelerating sea-level rise, and fossil fuel companies knew for decades their products cause global warming but worked tirelessly to mislead the public about it.

It doesn’t get much sillier than that. Apart from professional eco-zealots, nobody pays much attention to what fossil-fuel companies say about climate science. The idea that ExxonMobil and BP have prevented legions of progressive politicians, environmental pressure groups, renewable energy lobbyists, regulatory bureaucrats, “concerned” scientists, and trial lawyers from popularizing the narrative that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity is ludicrous.

Equally laughable is their claim that “Exxon Knew” in the 1970s and 1980s how bad climate change is for people and the planet. Recall that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) did not claim to know anthropogenic global warming had begun until its Third Assessment Report in 2001. For example, the IPCC’s First Assessment Report (1990) stated that “The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect is not likely for a decade or more” (p. 23). Detection was still iffy in the second report (1995), which modestly concluded that the “balance of evidence . . . suggests a discernible human influence on global climate” (p. 22). 

Besides, the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions come not from producing fossil fuels but from using them. Exxon and BP produce oil to serve billions of customers who, being human, value mobility. Indeed, mobility is so near and dear to the human heart that even officials in Oakland and San Francisco have been known to fill up at the pump. Logically, the litigants should sue themselves and practically everyone else on the planet, because fossil fuel consumption is well-nigh universal.

The Department of Justice amicus brief makes the point well: “The Cities’ claims should in the alternative be dismissed because they violate constitutional separation of powers principles and because they are non-justiciable. Virtually every individual, organization, company, and government across the globe emits greenhouse gases. If these Cities may properly allege injuries from climate change, then so can every person on the planet. Federal courts are poorly equipped to handle this multitude of cases and the associated complex scientific, economic, and technical issues. Nor should courts be the institutions to resolve the policy questions raised by such cases. Moreover, balancing the Nation’s energy needs and economic interests against the risks posed by climate change should be left to the political branches of the federal government in the first instance. This Court should dismiss the Cities’ claims in their entirety on this alternative basis.”