By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
The climate is changing. March marked the 11th straight month in which a global average temperature measure was set. But the climate of opinion is changing as well. Dramatic shifts are under way in how to grapple with the climate change threat.
In April, more evidence emerged about the oil industry’s early knowledge that global warming was real, before it switched into public denial mode.
We now know that warning signs were seen as early as the 1950s. Such evidence that has already lead to the opening of an FBI investigation, as well as state-level investigations announced by a coalition of 17 attorneys general in late March.
Also, in April, a federal judge allowed a landmark lawsuit to proceed against the federal government for discriminatory violations of the rights of youth and future generations by permitting and enabling fossil fuel use, leading to climate change.
The suit alleges that “failure to prevent the present and looming climate crisis constitutes a breach in the government’s basic duty of care to protect plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights.”
It, too, relies on early knowledge, dating back to a 1965 White House report warning of “irreversible climate change.”
“We need a paradigm shift,” said Julia Olson, co-counsel on the suit. “We can no longer continue with a fossil fuel-based energy system and protect the fundamental rights of young people and future generations.
“Fifty years ago, the U.S. government warned that apocalyptic change would result from continuing to burn fossil fuels. Twenty-five years ago, an office of Congress and the U.S. EPA called for decarbonizing our economy and quickly transitioning off of fossil fuels. These warnings and plans have been largely ignored.
“Instead, the U.S. government has acted in collusion with the fossil fuel industry to continue promoting, subsidizing and approving a fossil fuel-based energy system. By endangering these young plaintiffs, they are infringing on their fundamental constitutional rights.”
The suit, organized by Our Children’s Trust, which Olson heads, was filed on behalf of 21 plaintiffs, ages 8 to 19, on August 12, 2015, International Youth Day. Leading climate scientist James Hansen was also party to suit, as guardian for future generations.
“The federal government has known for decades that CO2 pollution from burning fossil fuels was causing global warming and dangerous climate change,” said Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh Martinez, a 15-year-old plaintiff from Boulder, Colo., and youth director of Earth Guardians, another party to the suit.
“Despite knowing these dangers, Defendants did nothing to prevent this harm. In fact, my Government increased the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to levels it knew were unsafe.”
“The 21 plaintiffs have sued the federal government for violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty, property and public trust resources,” Olson explained. “Their claims are rooted in ancient legal traditions and the historical traditions of our nation. For instance, the founders of our nation wrote about the need to protect the land not just for present generations, but for future generations. The Preamble of the Constitution establishes its purpose to secure the blessings of liberty for our posterity, not just one generation of Americans.”
On Nov. 12, the fossil fuel industry asked to intervene in the case, calling the lawsuit “a direct threat to [their] businesses,” and they were added as defendants on Jan. 14. On March 9, Judge Thomas Coffin of the federal district court in Eugene, Ore. heard oral arguments on the motions to dismiss by the government and the fossil fuel industry. And on April 8, he handed down the ruling denying those motions and allowing the case to proceed to trial.
“If the allegations in the complaint are to be believed, the failure to regulate the emissions has resulted in a danger of constitutional proportions to the public health,” Coffin wrote in his opinion.
At the same time, new information about early oil industry climate change knowledge further erodes their pretense of innocence and reveals striking parallels with their ongoing resistance smog regulation, which has contributed to the premature deaths of thousands in the Harbor Area alone.
This past September, Inside Climate News broke the story that Exxon’s own research had confirmed the role of fossil fuels in global warming going back to the late 1970s, a decade before it reversed course and began leading the attack against the science and against taking action to prevent global warming.
In late December, Inside Climate News revealed that others in industry knew as well, collaborating in task force with the American Petroleum Institute to monitor and share climate research between 1979 and 1983.
Then, just this month Inside Climate News reported on documents uncovered by the Center for International Environmental Law, which pushed the dawn of insider oil-industry knowledge back into the 1950s and 60s. The documents also show oil industry blame-shifting and reality-denying response patterns dating back to the 1940s, when smog first emerged as a public health crisis, with similar responses to both types of pollution problems.
The story about Exxon was most dramatic. Beginning in July 1977, and more broadly the next year, Exxon senior scientist James F. Black alerted the company’s top management to the threat posed by global warming, about which there was “general scientific agreement.”
He warned of average global temperatures increasing by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius and up to 10 degrees Celsius at the poles.
In a written summary he said that “man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”
In August 1979, Exxon custom outfitted a supertanker to sample carbon dioxide in the air and ocean along a route from the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf, budgeting more than $1 million in three years for the project. The next year, it assembled a team of climate modelers to investigate fundamental questions of climate sensitivity to the carbon buildup it knew was underway, even hiring some team members from academia, who saw Exxon as doing cutting-edge work.
“By 1981, Exxon scientists were no longer questioning whether the buildup of CO2 would cause the world to heat up,” Inside Climate News reported. “Company researchers had concluded that rising CO2 levels could create catastrophic impacts within the first half of the 21st century if the burning of oil, gas and coal wasn’t contained.”
The researchers were not alone.
“At the outset of its climate investigations almost four decades ago, many Exxon executives, middle managers and scientists armed themselves with a sense of urgency and mission,” Inside Climate News noted.
But that sense of urgency and mission did not survive the Reagan era, especially after an global oil glut depressed revenues and lead to deep cut-backs, including the research department. By the time Congress was ready to have serious hearings in 1988, Exxon was ready to lead the opposition.
The broader industry-wide story, published in December, focused on a task force set up by the American Petroleum Institute, along with the nation’s largest oil companies, which was set up to “to monitor and share climate research between 1979 and 1983, indicating that the oil industry, not just Exxon alone, was aware of its possible impact on the world’s climate far earlier than previously known,” Inside Climate News reported.
“It was a fact-finding task force,” the former Director James J. Nelson told Inside Climate News. “We wanted to look at emerging science, the implications of it and where improvements could be made, if possible, to reduce emissions.”
Like Exxon, they even went so far as to contemplate shifting to new non-carbon energy sources. But after Nelson left the American Petroleum Institute, “They took the environmental unit and put it into the political department, which was primarily lobbyists,” he said.
Thus, the American Petroleum Institute’s shift toward political opposition apparently preceded Exxon’s by a few years.
The most recent revelations, contained in a collection of documents spanning half a century at smokeandfumes.org (a website connected to the Center for International Environmental Law) pushed industry awareness back even further.
As explained on the website, the documents “offer compelling evidence that oil executives were actively debating climate science in the 1950s, and were explicitly warned about climate risks a decade later (meaning 10 and 20 years earlier than Exxon and American Petroleum Institute’s activities previously reported.
“Just as importantly, they offer glimpses into why the industry undertook this research, and how it used the results to show scientific uncertainty and public skepticism,” the website noted.
But there’s another very important story here as well, especially for Los Angeles area residents. The documents also reveal how closely the industry response to global warming followed a pattern of earlier responses to the emergence of smog as a public health concern. Indeed, the term “Smoke and Fumes” was the name of a committee formed in late 1946 by executives from the Western Oil and Gas Association, in response to a front-page story on the industry’s role in creating smog — a problem that had been virtually unknown prior to World War II. Several years later, the Smoke and Fumes Committee was taken over by the American Petroleum Institute, and the earliest industry global warming research was one of the topics it dealt with. From early on, there was a close relationship between the American Petroleum Institute and the Stanford Research Institute, which conducted much of the early research into air pollution.
A 1954 document, “The Petroleum Industry Sponsors Air Pollution Research,” exemplifies many of the early questionable attitudes that continue to this day. It paints a picture of the average citizen unaware of the gradual build-up of smog, suddenly realizing things have changed. “And when he does, the chances are that he is inclined to place the responsibility for the change solely on industry or its management.”
But management “is merely a group of men … basically no different than the average person … they, even as you and I, like to live in pleasant surroundings which have adequate supplies of clean, clear, water for drinking, sanitary and recreational purposes and lots of good old-fashioned clean, clear, country air for breathing.”
So how can they be to blame? In fact, as the title suggests, these men have been on the job protecting us for decades, as it goes on to explain. Smog? It can’t possibly be their fault.
A section titled Panicky People began by stating “The worst thing that can happen, in many instances, is the hasty passage of a law or laws for the control of a given air pollution situation,” and went on to state that “passing a law is, in many cases, the wrong way to start about solving an air pollution problem.”
In particular, the paper went on to argue that it was mistaken to regulate oil refinery pollution, as the newly created Los Angeles County Air Pollution Control District was set up to do, because it’s smog-formation theory was unproven and auto exhaust was more likely the culprit, according to work done at Stanford Research Institute.
Of course, the smog-formation theory was sound, and auto exhaust was but another source of smog, which also originated from the fossil fuel industry. In short, the oil industry pattern of denial and blame-shifting was well established, buttressed by a false presumption of superior scientific understanding—a pattern that persists to this day, in regard to everything from global warming, to smog, to specific site hazards like Rancho LPG.
Shifting back to the subject of global warming, the industry was similarly at odds with developing science in the 1950s. The theory of global warming, first proposed by Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius in 1896, had received additional support from the work of British engineer Guy Stewart Callendar in the 1930s and 40s, documenting a decades-long increase in global temperatures, correlated with rising fossil fuel use. However, there was widespread skepticism, particularly given the possibility of rapid oceanic absorption of carbon dioxide. Advances in radiocarbon dating helped make more accurate modeling possible by the 1950s, which lead to contrasting published views from Roger Revelle and Hans Suess of the Scripps Institute, who foresaw significant increases in atmospheric carbon, and H. Ray Brannon, of Humble Oil (now ExxonMobil).
A landmark 1957 paper by Revelle and Suess found that oceanic absorption was significantly limited, and thus, “human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past” by rapidly “returning to the atmosphere and oceans the concentrated carbon stored in sedimentary rocks over hundreds of millions of years,” so that “in coming decades we conclude that a total increase of 20 to 40% in atmospheric CO2 can be anticipated.”
However, Brannon believed that rate of carbon cycling was much slower. Explaining the points of agreement and disagreement, the Smoke and Fumes website says:
[T]he Brannon paper provides the earliest indisputable evidence we have yet found of oil company knowledge of climate science and climate risk. Significantly, the Brannon report acknowledges not only rising levels of atmospheric CO2, but also the evident contribution of fossil fuels to that increase. In acknowledged disagreement with Revelle, however, the Brannon paper suggests that CO2 would be retained in the oceans much longer before returning to the atmosphere, which would delay by decades or centuries the impact of fossil fuel emissions.
By 1968, however, Stanford Research Institute scientists Elmer Robinson and R.C. Robbins produced a final report to the American Petroleum on Stanford Research Institute’s research in the sources, abundance, and fate of gaseous pollutants in the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide.
In it, they warned that “there seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe,” including “the melting of the Antarctic ice cap” and “a rise in sea levels.”
More specifically, “If 1,000 years were required to melt the Antarctic ice cap, the resulting 400 foot rise in sea level would occur at a rate of 4 feet per 10 years. This is 100 times greater than presently observed changes.”
The report was, in effect, a complete vindication of existent global warming science, as the Smoke and Fumes website sums up:
Not only does the report acknowledge the link between rising atmospheric CO2, the risk of climate change, and that fossil fuels are the most likely culprit, it affirms that the underlying science is sound, and that the most important research needs were in technologies to reduce CO2 emissions.
Yet, the industry managed to find a way around it, playing up the uncertainties, which the report had noted, but not dwelled on, and even hastily commissioning a “Supplemental” report from Robinson to conform to the industry’s desired line.
These are just some of the highlights, and there are more documents yet to be discovered and fully explored.
A great deal of internal documentation is being sought by various attorney generals. Exxon is fighting them every step of the way. But the existing record is already utterly damning: the oil companies knew of the civilizational threat they were courting, at least possibly as far back as the late 1950s, and as a virtual certainty by late 1960s.
The size and scope of this historical record is staggering, given that published documents are only the tip of the iceberg. Which is why the joint efforts of multiple state attorneys general are such welcome news.
“Every attorney general does work on fraud cases and we are pursuing this as we would any other fraud matter,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on March 29, announcing the multi-state alliance. “You have to tell the truth, you can’t make misrepresentations of the kinds we’ve seen here…. The scope of the problem we are facing, the size of the corporate entities and their alliances, the trade associations and other groups, is massive and it requires a multistate effort.”
Exxon has pushed back, claiming that the investigations are politically-motivated violations of its First Amendment rights, but Schneiderman dismissed the claim brusquely.
“The First Amendment, ladies and gentlemen, does not give you the right to commit fraud,” he said.
Yet, while Exxon, along with its industry allies, is prepared to go to war with the government on one front, the industry has joined with the government in fighting the Our Children’s Trust lawsuit, for the obvious reason that government inaction has been benefiting it for decades.
Even as Stanford Research Institute’s 1968 final report is an early smoking gun on the industry side, a 1965 report of President Lyndon Johnson’s Scientific Advisers, Restoring the Quality of Our Environment, is an early smoking gun on the government side.
It contained an extensive discussion of the problem of global warming, and warned that anthropogenic pollutants, including carbon dioxide, threaten, “the health, longevity, livelihood, recreation, cleanliness and happiness of citizens who have no direct stake in their production, but cannot escape their influence.”
The failure of government action on climate change echoes similar failures to protect against environmental harm that Harbor Area residents have been fighting against for decades. And, the grounds for action are similar as well—the public trust doctrine.
“The public trust doctrine, rooted in Roman law, is prevalent in legal systems across the globe,” Olson said. “It provides that one of the most central purposes of government is to safeguard those resources vital for human life, so that they may not be impaired by one generation at later generations’ expense. And as trustee, government must be loyal to all generations, and citizen beneficiaries, not just a few monied interests.”
Back in the late 1970s, Exxon researchers believed that they had to do excellent scientific work in order to have credibility in public policy debates. A decade later, that assumption was gone. All that mattered was the money to push whatever argument the oil lobbyists wanted to make. But that climate of opinion has finally begun to change and not a moment too soon for the fate of us all.