Climate Change Lawsuits Fueled by Industry Documents

The news on climate change lawsuits keeps churning. On May 25, 2018, U.S. District Court Judge W. Alsup kept City of Oakland v. BP, et al. in court, opening four of the five defendants to discovery as it relates to jurisdictional issues. Meanwhile, multiple developments have progressed in cases throughout the world: 

And the Trump Administration, keeping a watchful eye, jumped into the Oakland case with an amicus while prepping for their next hearing versus Our Children’s Trust.

In coming days and months, Climate Investigations Center will continue publishing documents from our research and archives, adding to the growing collection on our Climate Files portal. These documents offer a tantalizing glimpse of what could be produced in discovery as these lawsuits move forward.

The documents amassed so far reveal the following:

  • The extensive internal knowledge, going back many decades, that corporations and trade associations possessed of climate science and climate impacts;
  • The campaigns and organizations ran and funded by corporate interests to block attention to climate change in the public policy arena;
  • The ever-shifting corporate stance on climate change and efforts to both preserve the status quo, the consumption of fossil fuels, while facing increasing pressure through the years to regulate greenhouse gases.

These climate change lawsuits, in various ways, accuse the corporations of unlawful conduct due to the continued production of their carbon-intensive products, despite knowing for decades greenhouse gas emissions would disrupt the climate. The plaintiff municipalities are now saddled with massive costs associated with weather extremes and sea level rise brought on by climate change and ocean acidification caused directly by carbon dioxide pollution. The municipalities seek “compensatory damages” which would, in part, fund mitigation and abatement programs to lessen climate change impacts to “protect human safety and public and private property.”

As these climate change lawsuits are launched, we at Climate Investigations Center are encouraged to continue uncovering and archiving the source documents supporting the various plaintiffs’ allegations.

Industry Documents Used in Climate Change Lawsuits

King County v. BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell

The most recent climate lawsuit, King County v. BP et al. demonstrates the potential impact of historical documentation, citing a wide range of archival work. This case mirrors the evidence presented in the San Francisco, Oakland and New York City cases, with the addition of internal Royal Dutch Shell documents published this April on Climate Files in cooperation with De Correspondent.  

Below are internal Shell documents directly referenced in the recent King County lawsuit:

The full King County complaint, annotated for document citations, can be found on DocumentCloud.

Climate change lawsuit, King County,

Santa Cruz County and San Mateo County v. Chevron, et al. 

San Mateo County v. Chevron, et al., and the Santa Cruz case rely heavily on historical documents, going deep into American Petroleum Institute’s early awareness of climate change and history of denial. Many of the cited documents have came to light in the past three years via reporting by Inside Climate News and Columbia Journalism School researchers and the Center for International Environmental Law’s Smoke and Fumes project.

The San Mateo complaint with annotations for document citations can be found on DocumentCloud:

Climate change Lawsuits, San Mateo Climate Lawsuit

Boulder v. Suncor and ExxonMobil 

The Boulder case, filed in April 17, 2018, uses a large number of historical documents to illuminate what and when Exxon knew about climate change, including factual evidence that:

The case also calls out the importance of the leaked American Petroleum Institute Global Climate Science Communications Plan and the discovery of the funding of denier Willie Soon by ExxonMobil, American Petroleum Institute and other fossil fuel interests (more on Willie Soon below).

The Boulder complaint with annotations for document citations can be found on DocumentCloud:

Willie Soon

The climate change lawsuits reference Dr. Willie Soon, whose work at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics was quietly funded for well over a decade by the Charles Koch Foundation, American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil Foundation, the Southern Company, and others. This information came to light as a result of a five year Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) investigation begun by Greenpeace in 2009.

NOTE: We know there are many more documents not yet produced by Smithsonian that match our FOIA request around Willie Soon’s funding.

Documentation of evidence from FOIA investigation and reaction from scientific journals:

Early media coverage of Willie Soon scandal:

  • New York Times, Justin Gillis, John Schwartz, “Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Climate Researcher” Feb 21, 2015
  • Boston Globe, Sylvan Lane, “Senator Edward Markey to investigate energy companies” Feb 21, 2015
  • The Guardian, Suzanne Goldenberg, “Work of prominent climate change denier was funded by energy industry” Feb 21, 2015
  • Inside Climate News, David Hasemyer, “Documents Reveal Fossil Fuel Fingerprints on Contrarian Climate Research” Feb 21, 2015

Exxon and API Documents 

Key Exxon and American Petroleum Institute documents cited in these climate change lawsuits are hosted on Climate Files. Many of these same documents are cited in the San Mateo, Santa Cruz and Marin County cases and the more recent Boulder, Colorado case:

Exxon Funding the Denial Machine

Also cited in the cases is research from ExxonSecrets, a project of Greenpeace launched in 2004, tabulating ExxonMobil’s funding of organizations who work to attack science and policy momentum on climate, aka “the climate denial machine.” This funding program peaked at nearly $3.5 million in 2005 and now totals over $35 million from 1997 through 2016.

ExxonSecrets was cited in the King County case to illustrate Exxon’s funding of Dr. S. Fred Singer and the Science and Environmental Policy Project. Singer’s SEPP project was funded by Exxon for many years in the 1990s, including $10,000 grants in 1998 and 2000.

NOTE: Climate Investigations Center has a full set of original IRS and company documents on the Exxon and ExxonMobil Foundation grants from the early 1990s through 2016, including original source documentation for over $5 million in ExxonMobil grants specifically labeled “climate” in some way.  As these lawsuits proceed, it will be interesting to see if discovery turns up the grant proposals and reports that accompanied these grants

Stay tuned for more on the climate lawsuits and as always, stay in touch and send us tips.

Posted by Kert Davies