In 1925, a Tennessee substitute teacher was indicted by a grand jury for teaching evolution to his high school class. That case, the Scopes trial, became famous for pitting science against the Bible, and it helped pave the way for educational reform.

This week, a case in California could do for climate change what the Scopes trial did for evolution. Last September, San Francisco and Oakland filed major lawsuits against five of the world’s largest oil companies — BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Shell.

All of those companies are constantly being sued for making large and sometimes permanent environmental messes. But the people of California aren’t suing BP and co. for spills, explosions, or other easily traceable disasters. Rather, they’re suing because those companies:

  1. knew about climate change decades ago,
  2. continued doing business as usual, and
  3. engaged in a world-wide public relations campaign to sow confusion over climate science.

California says the companies have been using deception to profit as the planet warms, and they should pay for the infrastructure the state needs to protect itself against rising sea levels.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The lawsuits join others in a new wave of court cases: the climate suits. Two weeks ago, a climate change lawsuit filed by 21 kid activists against the Trump administration was cleared for trial. A week later, Arnold Schwarzeneggar announced plans to sue Big Oil for committing “first degree murder.” And New York City hit polluters with a double whammy in January: The city decided to divest billions of dollars in pension money from fossil fuels and filed a lawsuit against some of the biggest polluters in the industry.

The cases pit people against industry and government, and, whether or not the people win, the legal battles could mark the beginning of a shift in the way fossil fuel companies are held accountable in court. This particular case is especially novel, thanks to an unorthodox judge named William Alsup.

The judge presiding over the Bay Area cities-vs.-oil companies case isn’t your average federal justice. Alsup’s the guy who blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to end DACA, taught himself how to use a programming script for a Silicon Valley lawsuit, and, as part of another tech battle, asked two ride-sharing services to give him a tutorial on self-driving cars to make a better-informed ruling.

Alsup’s quest for a well-rounded education means that before this trial moves forward, both parties must give him a two-part, first-of-its-kind tutorial in climate science in no more than two hours each. It’s a highly unusual request from a judge, experts say, and it will give Americans the opportunity to follow along as big polluters finally go on record about climate science and climate denialism.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Judge Alsup has submitted 14 questions for each party in the case to answer, including:

  • What caused the various ice ages?
  • What are the main sources of CO2 that account for the incremental buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere?
  • Why hasn’t plant life turned the higher levels of CO2 back into oxygen?

Most of the 14 questions could be answered by a precocious fifth grader. But the hearing, according to Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, will be the first time oil companies defend themselves in court against decades of climate science.

“Up until now, fossil fuel companies have been able to talk about climate science in political and media arenas where there is far less accountability to the truth,” Burger says.

The complaint

In addition to providing answers to Alsup’s questions, the plaintiffs will likely present evidence that oil companies knew about the harmful effects of CO2 on the atmosphere at least since the 1970s. They may also highlight the prize-winning 2015 investigation by InsideClimate News, which revealed that Exxon purposefully misled the public about the risks of fossil fuels in order to protect its business. California will charge that the “defendants continue to engage in massive fossil fuel production,” despite having long known about the dangers of fossil-fuel consumption.

As CO2 levels spike and global temperatures increase, melting glaciers have caused flooding in California’s coastal cities. The state’s argument rests on the charge that fossil fuel producers have caused a public nuisance. While the accusation sounds like something you’d call a drunk guy making a ruckus in the street, in legalese, it’s dead serious, constituting a crime that jeopardizes the welfare of a community.

The defense

While the oil companies are unlikely to deny climate science, they are expected to highlight areas of uncertainty on its specifics. Even though climate science has made leaps and bounds in the past decade, scientists still readily admit how hard it is to pin down exactly how much sea-level rise we can expect in the next 50 to 100 years. You can be sure Big Oil’s lawyers will question the validity of some climate science’s conclusions in court.

But they won’t stop there. The defendants will probably try to get the case dismissed on the grounds that the complaint “calls into question longstanding decisions by the Federal Government regarding, among other things, national security, national energy policy, environmental protection, development of outer continental shelf lands, the maintenance of a national petroleum reserve, mineral extraction on federal lands.” And the lawyers will rightly point out that their clients have “produced billions of dollars for the federal government.” In other words, they’ll try to argue that, by putting this case on trial, the government is biting some of the hands that feed it.

The defendants have already achieved one victory — they requested that the case be heard in federal instead of state court, where local laws are tough on big polluters. Just Friday, fossil fuel companies suffered a blow when a different set of lawsuits from three Californian counties were successfully moved to state court. But, for this case, Judge Alsup agreed with industry, saying a “patchwork of 50 different answers to the same fundamental global issue would be unworkable.”

What happens if California wins

If San Francisco and Oakland win their respective suits, the five oil giants might have to pay billions of dollars into an “abatement fund,” a reserve that the cities can use to pay for seawalls and other infrastructure to protect their citizens against rising oceans.

But the case might not even make it to trial. California could quite possibly ace the upcoming climate change tutorial and lose the case nevertheless. The tutorial puts climate science in the spotlight, but the oil companies could persuasively argue that California’s sea-level concerns (and the damaging storm surges that accompany sea rise) can’t be pinned on individual companies.

“There are legal obstacles that could prevent this case from ever going to trial,” Burger says. “The science could play a role in some of these preliminary arguments, but the ultimate questions about whether the science equates with legal liability for these plaintiffs, the factual connection between these particular parties’ actions and the particular harm suffered by these cities, may never get heard.”

In other words, California could win the battle but lose the war. The oil companies hope the case will get dismissed or shunted up to the Supreme Court where legal precedent favors polluters. That doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the future of the climate suit.

If the court ultimately rules in favor of the defendants, there’s a long line of similar lawsuits waiting for their day in court. Buckle up, polluters! You’re in for it now.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.