California Relies Upon Attribution Science in Climate Accountability Lawsuit Against Oil and Gas Industry

Statement by Kathy Mulvey, Union of Concerned Scientists

Published Sep 16, 2023

The lawsuit filed yesterday by the State of California aiming to hold Big Oil accountable for climate change related damages and the defendants’ well-documented history of deceiving the public about the climate crisis marks the most significant climate suit brought against the industry so far.

The lawsuit targets ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and BP and their major trade association, the American Petroleum Institute. The companies have a combined market capitalization of over $1 trillion and have seen record profits recently.

With yesterday’s announcement, California joins more than forty cities, counties and states across the United States and its territories that are suing major fossil fuel companies over devastating climate impacts and their concerted campaigns to spread disinformation for decades about climate science and the harmful effects of their products. A new peer-reviewed analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), for example, found that 19.8 million acres burned—37% of the total area scorched by forest fires in the Western United States and southwestern Canada since 1986, including those in California—can be attributed to heat-trapping emissions traced to the world’s largest fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a recent exposé in The Wall Street Journal based on damning documents that offer an inside look at how ExxonMobil strategized to downplay climate change. In addition to the lawsuit, two bills are awaiting Governor Newsom’s signature—one would require corporations, financial institutions, and insurers to report on climate-related financial risk and the other would necessitate that all large U.S.-based corporations doing business in California publicly disclose the total global warming emissions associated with their products and operations.

Below is a statement by Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director in the Climate and Energy Program at UCS.

“From worsening wildfires and coastal erosion to drought and heat waves, California is facing some of the most severe impacts of the climate crisis. While California has shown great leadership in implementing climate solutions, the state is also sustaining significant financial damages in coping with these impacts.

“A rapidly growing body of scientific research attributes particular climate change impacts to heat-trapping emissions traced to the largest fossil fuel and cement producers. California’s lawsuit reflects the growing body of evidence of what ExxonMobil, Shell, and other major oil and gas companies knew about the dangers their products posed to the global climate—and the devastating harms that have resulted from their lies, obstruction, and delay tactics. It’s past time for these companies to stop their greenwashing and disinformation campaigns and pay their fair share of the costs the climate crisis is imposing on Californians.

“California’s suit adds to the growing momentum to hold Big Oil accountable for its decades of deception, and secure access to justice for people and communities suffering from fossil-fueled extreme weather and slow onset disasters such as sea level rise. As movements to reverse the tobacco and opioid epidemics have demonstrated, litigation is a powerful tool that can and should be used to hold bad actors accountable and to protect people and the planet over corporate profits.

“The lawsuit comes as two historic climate bills await the governor’s signature. The measures provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for California to lead the country in corporate transparency, ensuring the public has the information it needs to hold companies accountable for their role in the climate crisis and mitigate further harm.”

Additional Resources and Analyses:

• A UCS report, “The Climate Deception Dossiers: Internal Fossil Fuel Industry Memos Reveal Decades of Corporate Disinformation.”

• A UCS report, “The Fossil Fuels Behind Forest Fires.”

• A UCS blogpost documenting new evidence of Big Oil disinformation coming out of a U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform investigation.

• In a recent video, UCS scientists reacted to misleading statements made by the CEOs of BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell at a previous oversight hearing.

• A UCS blogpost on the precedent-setting ruling ordering Shell to cut carbon emissions.