March 29, 2016

California Bill Seeks Accountability from Fossil Fuel Companies for Climate Science Deception

Climate Change Pollution Is Damaging Public Health, Property and the Environment

OAKLAND, Calif. (March 29, 2016)—A California bill introduced today by Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) would extend the statute of limitations in state law to enable law enforcement to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for decades of deception and fraud over the scientific evidence about climate change. The Climate Science Truth and Accountability Act (SB 1161) follows the release of internal corporate memos and other evidence showing that oil, gas and coal companies conspired since the late 1980s to deceive the public about climate change. The bill would extend the statute of limitations under California’s Unfair Competition Law from 4 to 30 years.

Fossil fuel companies are facing increased scrutiny about their climate science deception, including investigations of ExxonMobil by California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, according to news reports. On March 24, the Rockefeller Family Fund announced it is divesting its investments in fossil fuel companies. In a statement, the fund—which is run by heirs of John D. Rockefeller, who founded Standard Oil, an Exxon predecessor—excoriated ExxonMobil for “morally reprehensible conduct” and wrote, “While the global community works to eliminate the use of fossil fuels, it makes little sense—financially or ethically—to continue holding investments in these companies.”

“California already is experiencing the costly, damaging effects of climate change,” said Adrienne Alvord, California and western states director of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an independent science group that is sponsoring the bill. “We want to ensure that the state has the ability to hold fossil fuel companies legally accountable for the decades of deception and damages they have caused to public health, property and the environment in California.”

Peer-reviewed research published in January 2014 by the science journal Climatic Change indicates 90 companies are responsible for two-thirds of total global carbon pollution, and five companies—Chevron, Exxon, BP, Shell and Conoco Phillips—have emitted 12.5 percent of total global emissions. Also, 50 percent of the total global emissions of heat-trapping carbon pollution has been emitted since 1988, after the fossil fuel companies’ own scientists had agreed with the mainstream scientific consensus that the burning of fossil fuels was causing a rise in global temperatures. And yet the industry sought to mislead the public about the risks to the world’s climate from relying on fossil fuels through a campaign aimed at casting doubt on the validity of climate science. For example, a 1998 internal strategy memo by the American Petroleum Institute outlined the industry’s plan to use selected scientists as spokespeople. The “Global Climate Science Communications Plan,” written with the direct involvement of fossil fuel companies including ExxonMobil (then Exxon) and Chevron, aimed to confuse and misinform the public. According to the memo, “victory” would be achieved for the campaign when “average citizens” and the media were convinced of “uncertainties” in climate science despite overwhelming evidence of the impact of human-caused global warming and nearly unanimous agreement about it in the scientific community.

“Our environment and economy face grave risks from climate change, including unprecedented heat and wildfires, severe drought and sea level rise. This legislation will give law enforcement the tools to hold companies accountable for hiding evidence of their products’ devastating impacts and for their role in delaying action to address this crisis,” said Sen. Allen.

The latest data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) show that February 2016 set yet another record as the planet’s warmest month since record-keeping began in the late 1800s. And UCS climate scientists say that global climate change is worsening regional harm in California. For example, the July 2006 heat wave caused 140 heat-related deaths and resulted in more than 16,000 excess emergency department visits; the state’s third-largest recorded wildfire, the 2013 Rim Fire, burned more than 257,000 acres and destroyed private property valued at $50 million to $265 million; and the current drought has caused the greatest absolute reduction in water availability for California agriculture ever seen, including causing 410,000 acres of Central Valley agricultural land to be lost to fallowing in 2014.

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The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.