United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has added his voice to the anti-fossil fuel extremists supporting lawsuits against what he described as “climate-wrecking corporations.” Secretary General Guterres meant the fossil fuel companies whom he regularly demonizes.
In the United States, legal complaints have already been filed in various states against major oil companies for allegedly hiding from the public for decades what they supposedly knew about the dangers that fossil fuels pose to the climate. The plaintiffs, who are often state governments, have gone to their own state courts where the plaintiffs think they will have a better chance than in federal courts to obtain windfalls in compensation for their alleged damages.
The plaintiffs are following the playbook used successfully against tobacco companies in the 1990s. The lawsuits against tobacco companies alleged that they continued to sell cigarette products to the public while intentionally concealing for decades scientific information that they knew linked smoking to cancer. A huge settlement cost the tobacco companies more than $200 billion, with a good chunk enriching the plaintiffs’ lawyers.
Today’s plaintiffs are demanding huge payouts from fossil fuel companies to compensate them for the damages they claim they suffered resulting from natural disasters allegedly caused by climate change that the plaintiffs blame on fossil fuel gas emissions.
Like the plaintiffs in the tobacco company suits, the climate change litigants and their lawyers are hoping to win enough skirmishes in court to persuade the defendants to agree to huge multibillion dollar settlements.
The climate change lawsuits are a sham.
It is one thing to prove a direct causal relationship between smoking and such diseases as lung cancer. But it is another thing altogether to prove a direct causal relationship between damages a plaintiff claims to have resulted from one or more climate change-induced natural disasters and the conduct of a specific fossil fuel industry defendant.
Climate change is a global phenomenon. Weather systems and patterns can travel globally. How do we know that a vast destructive storm hitting the West Coast of the United States, for example, was not fueled by greenhouse gases emitted in China? We do not know because such a granular level of proof of direct causation of climate change and natural disasters tied to a specific entity is virtually impossible to achieve.
The top twenty companies in the oil and gas, coal, and cement production industries emitting CO2 and methane for the period between 1965 and 2018 accounted collectively for 34.98% of total global emissions during that period. Saudi Aramco was first with 4.33%. Russia’s Gazprom was second with 3.17%. Chevron, ExxonMobil, and National Iranian Oil came in third (3.10%), fourth (3.01%), and fifth (2.62%) respectively.
Yet the climate change litigants pursued the usual left-wing strategy to find the deepest pocket corporate targets available to sue whom they cast as villains. For example, several state governments decided to sue ExxonMobil exclusively for untold damages as if this one U.S.-based company were to blame for all the harm to the states and their citizens allegedly caused by climate change.
Even more importantly, the plaintiffs are using misinformation and half-truths to support their theory that the defendants knowingly misled the public about the dangers of climate change and their linkage to fossil fuel gas emissions. The plaintiffs claim that the defendants promoted false information to the public to sow doubt regarding any findings that greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuels cause the grievous harms wrought by climate change. The plaintiffs also claim that fossil fuel companies have deliberately withheld studies from the public that contradicted the companies’ rosy public pronouncements.
Plaintiffs are trying to use as evidence of their claims a 1968 paper written by two scientists at the behest of the American Petroleum Institute. A 2022 article appearing in Yale Environment 360 discussed this paper and its relevance to today’s cases against the fossil fuel industry.
The 1968 paper concluded that “it is likely that noticeable increases in temperature could occur” if the burning of fossil fuels into the atmosphere continued. (Emphasis added)
Note that the scientists used hedged language in their warning. Nevertheless, as the Yale article noted, the 1968 paper and a follow-up report a year later are “playing a key role in a wave of lawsuits seeking to hold oil companies accountable for climate change.”
Climate change litigants and activists are cherry-picking and distorting historical evidence to place all the blame and legal liability for the harmful effects of climate change on the backs of the fossil fuel companies. The truth is far more complex than their simplistic portrayal of fossil fuel companies as the evil villains of the climate change narrative.
Was Exxon a villain when it contributed to the early development of solar cell technology in the 1970’s? The company’s advertising campaign back then featured solar alongside coal and nuclear as an energy source.
Was Exxon a villain when it also funded research leading to the development of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery in the 1970’s, a technology used in most electric vehicles today?
This was not the behavior of a rapacious company intent on deceiving the public into believing that the burning of fossil fuels had nothing to do with climate change. Nor of a company intent on addicting energy users to rely solely on oil and gas. Indeed, Exxon was way ahead of its time in funding the development of alternative clean energy sources, but unfortunately did not find sufficient market demand for these technologies back then to warrant making further investments. Exxon’s decision to redirect its focus to its core businesses where it could make profits rather than to ventures that continued to incur losses is what companies do in a free-market capitalist economy.
Moreover, the climate change litigants and activists fail to mention the federal government’s active role in encouraging the expansion of fossil fuel resources and more production of fossil fuel products in the United States. The government did so during all the decades that the plaintiffs accuse the fossil fuel companies of misleading the public about the dangers of fossil fuel emissions to the climate. A brief look at some history will illustrate how the federal government has acted contrary to the early warnings from scientists about fossil fuels and climate change.
The Energy Research and Development Agency (“ERDA”), which evolved into the Department of Energy, advocated during the 1970’s that the United States increase its fossil fuel resources to reduce reliance on foreign oil suppliers. This federal government agency pointed to the nation’s abundant supply of coal as a valuable source of energy along with the nation’s own petroleum resources. However, some scientists, inside and outside of the agency, raised concerns about the effects of carbon dioxide on the climate.
The Carbon Dioxide Research Program was organized within and funded by the Department of Energy in the late 1970’s. Some of the multi-discipline scientists assembled for this program concluded that the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere might be a problem but was not a cause for alarm. Others provided more dire assessments regarding the threat of climate change from the use of fossil fuels.
In any event, the public was not clued into what the scientists were worrying about at the time, including the direst predictions. Early warnings by scientists of the threat that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels potentially posed to the climate did not change the trajectory of strong government support for fossil fuels as the nation’s primary source of energy.
During the decades that followed, the scientific community came closer together in reaching a consensus opinion about the grave dangers of climate change and the use of fossil fuels as its driving cause. World leaders and politicians climbed aboard the bandwagon, leading to the UN-sponsored Paris agreement on climate change pushed so hard by former President Barack Obama.
What goes unmentioned or is belittled by the anti-fossil fuel extremists is that major oil companies themselves supported the Paris climate change agreement in 2015 and urged former President Donald Trump not to exit the agreement, which he ultimately did anyway. They have also called for a carbon tax.
All the while, despite lofty pronouncements and symbolic actions, the U.S. government has not only continued to subsidize the fossil fuel industry. It has derived revenue from the industry despite continued warnings from inside and outside the federal government about the supposed existential impacts on the planet caused by greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.
The United States Government Accountability Office has reported to Congress, for example, about the “billions of dollars annually in revenue for the federal government” generated by the production of oil, gas, and coal on federal lands.
A Forbes article noted with praise that “the great U.S. shale oil and natural gas revolution started around 2008, right when Barack Obama took office for the first of his two terms as U.S. President.” Under the president who saw himself as a champion of renewable clean energy, “U.S. crude oil production increased 80%.”
In a letter from six major oil companies in 2015 to the United Nations, these companies asked for governments around the world to put “clear, stable, long-term, ambitious policy frameworks” into place. “This would reduce uncertainty and help stimulate investments in the right low carbon technologies and the right resources at the right pace,” they wrote.
That has not happened. Instead, the actions of governments around the world, including the United States, have given mixed signals at best.
Fossil fuel companies made reasonable business decisions, with the federal government’s active support all along the way, to increase their oil and gas exploration and production. From the time of Exxon’s own early efforts to diversify sources of energy, no commercially viable clean energy alternative has emerged that is sufficient to meet the huge global demand for energy necessary to support the global economy.
The planet and society will benefit from incentivizing major energy companies to go all in on collaborating with government agencies, other industry sectors, and private R&D labs to develop technologies leading to workable, cost-effective clean energy alternatives and CO2 recapture. Instead, the greedy climate change litigants are trying to shift all the blame for natural disasters to the fossil fuel industry and to shake down oil and gas companies for windfalls the litigants certainly do not deserve.