Climate threatsA court case could set precedent for climate change litigation

Published 1 April 2018

A closely watched federal trial pitting two cities against major oil companies has taken surprising and unorthodox turns. Stanford researchers examine the case, which could reshape the landscape of legal claims for climate change-related damages.

A judge in California took an unusual step in trying to untangle who is to blame for increasingly frequent droughts, floods and other climate change-related extreme weather. The case in San Francisco is weighing the question of whether climate change damages connected to the burning of oil are specifically the fault of the companies that extract and sell it.

The judge in People of the State of California v. BP P.L.C. et al. had both the plaintiffs – the cities of Oakland and San Francisco – and the defendants – several major oil companies – answer basic questions about climate change in a tutorial format. Counter to what some might have expected, an oil company lawyer largely confirmed the consensus science on the issue, but challenged the idea that oil companies should be held accountable.

Stanford Report spoke with two experts —  Katharine Mach, a senior research scientist at the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Science and director of the Stanford Environment Assessment Facility at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and Deborah Sivas, the Luke W. Cole Professor of Environmental Law, who is also the director of the Stanford Environmental Law Clinicand a senior fellow at Woods — to get their perspectives on the climate tutorial, the science in question and the role of the judiciary in confronting climate change challenges.

Stanford Report: Why did the judge take such an unorthodox approach, in requesting a tutorial from the parties in this suit?
Deborah Sivas:
The way the questions were drafted – relatively straightforward questions of physical science that lead, inexorably, to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) conclusions – and the way the judge engaged the parties during the proceeding make it pretty clear that the court largely understands climate science already.

The tutorial revealed that there is not going to be a lot of fighting about the fact that human activities are causing accelerated climate change. Although it wasn’t an evidentiary proceeding with decisions about the admissibility of factual information, it would be very difficult at this point for the defendants to backtrack and contest the anthropogenic causes of climate change. By holding this proceeding, the judge circumvented what could have been a couple of years of jostling and motion practice in discovery.