I’m not sure how much people read anymore; I hear it’s going out of style and am told that 280 characters now tests the limits of our attention span (the new-ish Twitter limit, FYI, if you’re, like, a caveman). I hope the reading habit isn’t dying off for several reasons; one, because I’m writing a book; and two, that sometimes the world requires a bit more mental processing power than is on display in Twitter or Instagram to get either ahead, or out, of a quagmire.
It is not an understatement to say that we presently need help with both, that is, getting ahead and out of a quagmire, on the environmental/fossil fuel front. We are a bit stuck; we have spent decades developing an utter dependency on fossil fuels, so total that it is hard to define, and with the rise of the climate debates we’re being told we need to stop using them, and now. Of course the debates gets muddied and emotional and combative at that point, and we’re stuck. We need some voices that “rise above,” so to speak.
Help is on the way, of a sort, from a courtroom in San Francisco, where a seemingly particularly wise judge is presiding over a case where several cities are suing big oil for costs associated with dealing with climate change. Now this will be some reading everyone should pay attention to.
Legal judgments, if you even have the slightest appreciation of logic, can be fascinating and wonderful reading. (Just so you know, I am not, in case you’re wondering, currently involved in any legal proceedings that would benefit from sucking up to lawyers or the legal system.) A well written legal judgement is sometimes a thing of beauty, where each argument is considered against some sort of standard, either of law or precedent, and a verdict given with a clear line of reasoning. What can make them such excellent reading is that, if well done, they rise above the clutter of the human judgement that we cast on everything unconsciously; we sprinkle everything we observe with the big bag of biases we carry around and are often completely unaware of.
The judge in the climate change case, William Alsup, started with what to me was a brilliant way to open the case. He asked for a tutorial that took up most of the day, and the tutorial was like one long science class. He asked both sides to answer a set of questions that get right to the heart of climate change. This was smart, because he wanted to hear the arguments and reasoning and logic right there in court. We can find plenty of opinions all over the web, but there is a difference between voicing an opinion on the internet for audiences that will primarily agree with you, with a few loud but well-planted exceptions, and voicing that opinion to a judge in a court of law. Thankfully, the judge is taking it seriously and set out to clear the air first – to learn as much as he could, and giving each side a chance to say as much as they wanted, as they wanted, in a face-to-face inquiry.
Given such a setting, we can hope that clarity and emotional defusement will begin to be injected into the debate. The oil companies, notably Chevron, have however changed the entire tone of the proceedings by stating that “Chevron accepts what the IPCC has reached consensus on concerning science and climate change..It’s a global issue that requires global action.”
More than a few will disagree with that position, but it is what it is. You can disagree all you like, and you may be right for all I know, but that train has left the station. Furthermore, this is now a public statement by a defendant in a US court, and that is never going to go away. So any arguments to the contrary now have that mountain to climb.
What is of far greater significance to me is the judge’s position with respect to fossil fuel usage in general, and the degree to which this has been either detrimental or beneficial to humans over the past hundred years. The position of the plaintiffs, the US cities, is that “the defendant fossil fuel companies knew that the extraction and sale of fossil fuel products would cause adverse climate impacts and promoted the sale and use of such products while concealing their harmful effects.” It seems to me beyond arguable that the world was well on its way to being addicted to fossil fuels, say even by the second world war, long before the fear of rising global temperatures from burning fossil fuels was ever forecast to be a major problem. In fact, in the 1970s when the ozone layer was depleted there was much speculation as to whether there would be global cooling if the greenhouse effect was mitigated by loss of the ozone layer. But we’ll leave those dates and warning-chronologies to the courts.
What was refreshing was the judge’s invitation to both parties to “help him weight the large benefits that have flowed from the use of fossil fuels against the possibility that such fuels may be causing global warming.”
As Courthouse News put it, “Alsup asked both sides to submit additional 10-page briefs on whether and how he should consider the benefits of oil and gas, in addition to the harms, in his analysis of whether oil companies acted ‘unreasonably’ by promoting oil and gas production, despite knowing that fossil fuels were warming the planet.”
Finally, a sensible question in a sensible forum with some far-reaching consequences. The judge’s request is also brilliant in that it forces each side to reach out and acknowledge the other – that the 10-page brief he requested from each side needs to consider the benefits of oil and gas in addition to the harms.
It is of course possible that the judge will rule in favour of the plaintiffs, but that seems unlikely and even almost impossible – Judge Alsup rightly pointed out that while big oil may have been the largest players in the business, fossil fuel usage and promotion is a global story, touching every nation and government – many of which governments promoted fossil fuel development also. In fact, the ludicrous argument often put forward that governments “subsidize” petroleum exploration by allowing accelerated write-off of costs, if one accepts that line of reasoning, would be clear proof that governments have been promoting not just usage but exploration for fossil fuels for decades. And ultimately coal has as much or more to do with the situation than anything, and it has nothing to do with big oil.
Regardless, it is refreshing to see the debate moving to an arena that is festooned with bullsh*t detectors. We should all be better for it.
Editor’s note: The judge moved too fast for this article’s publication and made a decision