Oil Companies Conveniently Think Climate Science Stopped in 2013

Illustration for article titled Oil Companies Conveniently Think Climate Science Stopped in 2013em/em
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Good news! Oil companies are woke to the reality of climate change. There’s just one small hitch. They only care about outdated science that serves their agenda of not paying billions to fix the mess they helped create.

So it went at the climate science trial on Wednesday in a San Francisco courtroom. Well, more accurately it was a “tutorial” about the history of climate science and “the best science now available on global warming” as part of a case involving Bay Area cities suing Chevron, BP, and Exxon for billions to help them prepare for sea level rise.

The tutorial put oil companies in a bit of a pickle. They’ve known about climate change for decades and that the oil they sell is one of the root causes, all while actively deceiving the public about the dangers it poses. Admitting that could put them on the hook in California and elsewhere as climate litigation blossoms.


While the plaintiffs called actual climate scientists to the stand, Chevron’s lawyers—who represented the oil companies at the tutorial—decided to go it alone, which tells you something. They proceeded to spend the day misrepresenting how scientists use the term uncertainty and cherrypicking away at old science reports.

“Chevron’s lawyer plucked his strategy right from the climate-denier playbook,” Shaye Wolf, a climate scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity who was at the hearing, told Earther. “He overemphasized and inflated narrow areas of uncertainty about global warming’s impacts. And he bobbed and weaved his way out of acknowledging the role of fossil fuels.”

Let’s get this uncertainty thing out of the way. To an average human, uncertainty is basically ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. To a climate scientist, it’s more of a “oh, we should do some more research.” Or as Kate Marvel, a Columbia University and NASA climate modeler, told Earther in more expansive terms, “uncertainty is not ignorance! We don’t know everything, but we don’t know nothing. It makes me so sad when people use the continued existence of science as an argument against science.”


Leaning on uncertainty is a classic trope to cast doubt on science that’s been used to stall climate action for years. But seeing it misappropriated in a courtroom with billions of dollars on the line is perhaps the strongest argument yet for scientists to find another way to talk about what and how much they know.

“Exaggerating or manufacturing uncertainty has been a key component of legal attempts to undermine climate science,” Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, told Earther. “Unfortunately, this has been quite effective in the past, so I am not very surprised to see it still happening now.”


When it came time to talk about climate history and best available science, the oil company lawyers strangely didn’t delve into Exxon’s decades of research they hid from the public. Nor did they talk about the long history of research connecting carbon dioxide and climate dating back to the 1800s.


Instead, they talked about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. You know, the thing Al Gore won the Nobel Prize for. The group has put out authoritative reports every five years on climate change since 1990, with the most recent one published in 2013 and 2014.

Constraining the discussion to that period basically ignores a ton of major and dire findings. Four years might not sound like a lot, but the thing is it’s actually more than four years because of the time it takes to do research, run and build models, and write a monstrous tome of knowledge.


“The most recent IPCC report came out in 2013, but the climate model simulations used in that report stopped in 2005,” Marvel said. “By ‘stopped,’ I mean they relied on observational data (greenhouse gases, aerosols, volcanic dust, solar fluctuations) only up to that point. Everything going forward was a projection, using our best guesses of what emissions would look like.”

“The IPCC report is the gold standard of climate science assessment, but it falls short in three important and relevant ways that would lead me, as a scientist, to advise expanding the literature used in this case if one wanted to obtain the most comprehensive and up-to-date perspective on the state of climate science,” Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech, told Earther.


Hayhoe noted that the reports tend to be more conservative by nature, are inherently dated, and global rather than local in focus (which would seem to be a deal-breaker in a Bay Area-related case). She recommended the most recent National Climate Assessment published in part last year as a better resource.

Chevron’s IPCC trick is even more dastardly when you consider the huge growth of research that has occurred since then, particularly when it relates to sea level rise (and thus, the companies’ fate in this case).


“The ice sheets are disintegrating faster than we expected, and consequently we are witnessing an unexpected acceleration in sea level rise,” Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State and IPCC author, told Earther in an email. “Our own research demonstrates how this is leading to a profound increase in coastal risk.”

By making the last IPCC report an arbitrary cut off, Chevron’s lawyers axed a growing body of literature showing the West Antarctic is at risk of runaway retreat and could cause sea levels to rise ten feet. They also missed out on studies showing the previously stable East Antarctic is getting a little iffy, too. Oh, and don’t forget the recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates for extreme sea level rise!


Bob Kopp, a sea level rise expert at Rutgers, pointed Earther to a California-specific sea level rise report published last year as another great resource if someone was, say, actually interested in the best available science. Or hey, maybe Earther could interest you in this Bay Area study published two weeks ago!

Basically none of these studies and reports contain good news for Bay Area residents. So it makes sense why Chevron would want to avoid mentioning it, but that doesn’t make it any less bullshit.


Gary Griggs, a researcher who led the 2017 California sea level rise report, was also called testify earlier by the plaintiffs and his testimony preempted Chevron’s argument that sea level rise isn’t that bad.


Don Wuebbles, a climate researcher at University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, was called to testify on behalf of the Bay Areas cities. He was one of the leaders on the recent National Climate Assessment and the last IPCC report pointed out that science has indeed advanced and so has sea level rise itself. He also dropped the climate science version of a sick burn:


What District Court Judge William Alsup, who called for the tutorial, took away is anyone’s guess. He once famously taught himself Java for a court case between Google and Oracle. We’ll see if five hours with scientists and lawyers on Wednesday was enough for him to detect the climate signal from the noise.

Managing editor, Earther

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This whole business of “uncertainty” is actually quite well-defined as far as scientists are concerned, at least for quantitative work and estimates. Any statistic is going to have a confidence interval, and that represents the uncertainty of the estimate. Using the term to indicate lack of confidence in an estimate is casuistry.

Another indication of why the norms of the business and political worlds must be barred from the sciences. These guys would have us think that scientist is a liar or a bumbler, or both, as long as it serves someone’s ends.