Momentum Builds in California to Hold Fossil Fuel Companies Accountable for Climate Science Misinformation

, Western states policy manager | May 16, 2016, 9:41 am EST
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Six weeks ago I wrote that 2016 could mark a turning point in efforts to force fossil fuel companies to reckon with their record of twisting the facts on climate change. I’ve seen two key developments in the last month that signal momentum is truly building to bring attention—and accountability—to the fossil fuel industry for having misled consumers and the broader public about the risks of global warming.

Last month, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) released a trove of documents revealing that the oil industry has been well aware of the potential climate risks of fossil fuels for decades. The uncovered industry documents show that the petroleum industry was conducting climate research as early as 1957, corroborating evidence that major oil companies had a sophisticated command of climate science by the 1980s.

Meanwhile, in California, the Climate Science Truth and Accountability Act (SB 1161), authored by Senator Ben Allen (Santa Monica), has passed through two senate committees and will soon face a vote before the entire California State Senate. This narrowly targeted bill, which focuses on corporate deception relating to climate change science, has garnered support from more than 30 organizations that recognize the threat of climate change and the importance of defending the public from industry foul play.

New discoveries put public relations campaigns in a new light

The documents unearthed by CIEL are not the only recent discoveries that track the fossil fuel industry’s deep knowledge of climate change back decades.

Recent reporting by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times has also revealed that for decades many fossil fuel companies were not only aware of climate change, but were at the leading edge of understanding it. Some were even making investments to fortify their own infrastructure from climate change. Meanwhile, other evidence highlights how many fossil fuel companies and their trade groups downplayed the risks of their product to the climate, often by casting doubt on the science of climate change.

The sum of these revelations now makes it clear that the industry’s professed doubt about climate change has not been an honest attempt to discern the facts, but PR spin intended to confuse consumers and fend off competition from lower-carbon energy sources.

SB 1161 ensures potentially unlawful acts do not escape prosecution

Aside from the moral implications of the fossil fuel industry’s deceit, there is a question of whether their behavior was unlawful. It is possible that fossil fuel companies violated California’s Unfair Competition Law, which protects consumers from deceptive, misleading, and fraudulent business practices. This law typically requires legal action within four years. However, a statute of limitations can sometimes be suspended (“tolled,” in legalese) if the unlawful behavior is hidden from the public. Consequently, there is uncertainty about when the statute of limitations runs out in a case like this.

Here is where SB 1161 steps in: the bill says that any cases addressing violations of the Unfair Competition Law that relate to deceiving the public about climate science won’t get caught up in procedural debates about whether the statute of limitations has run—so long as the cases are brought in the next four years. The result is that the state attorney general or a district attorney could fairly litigate any acts of unfair business competition relating to climate science so long as the investigations lead them to file a lawsuit before 2021.

To be clear, SB 1161 does not presume that any fossil fuel company has violated the law. But should the evidence support legal action, SB 1161 will give public prosecutors a more powerful tool to pursue it. It would be an unfortunate contortion of our justice system for a fossil fuel company to escape prosecution for unlawful acts simply because it successfully hid the evidence from public view. SB 1161 protects the public from such a risk.

We should not wait to act

Carbon emissions are now impacting California, contributing to drought, rising sea level, more frequent and intense heat waves, and longer and more damaging wildfire seasons. Since 1988, when fossil fuel companies knew the risks and likely consequences of their products to the climate, industrial carbon emissions have doubled. These emissions will significantly increase the costs and risks to our communities, health, and economy.

As California continues to take important steps to reduce heat-trapping emissions and prepare itself for the unavoidable impacts of climate change, we must also take an honest look at how we have come to find ourselves in our current predicament.

While responsibility for climate change is certainly spread across society, fossil fuel companies have a unique responsibility, which includes accountability for misleading consumers on climate science in order to block low-carbon alternatives. California’s state senate has a chance to send a powerful signal that misleading people about climate science is unacceptable.

Do you live in California? Take action now!

Posted in: Global Warming Tags: ,

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  • David Edwards

    I think that “taking an honest look at how we came to our current predicament” is really code for “find a way to shake down the oil companies for as much money as possible”. Because that’s certainly how it looks. And it is very dishonest if that is what is meant. Why?

    Because since 1988, the major Western oil companies have been contributors to global emissions, but far far from the major contributors (see Aramco, Gaz Prom, NIOC etc.),
    Because the States are only going after the likes of Exxon because it is politically easy to do so (no one likes oil companies) and because they can’t go after the major contributors,
    Because it is we the people who are the ones who have enjoyed the hydrocarbon based lifestyles and still enjoy them. And we sure don’t want to be paying a carbon tax on our fuel (or so our elected representatives think).

    As one (former oil company employee) millennial said to me and to her friends, “I’ll believe you are all serious about climate change when you stop using plastic.”

  • Clif

    California better beef up very fast on the solar and Wind because utilities Will back off quickly from the state if criminality or even civil fines are raised as a potential. The golden state is going to have to deal With broWn outs in the mean time.

  • China

    Republicans are the only deniers of climate change in all the developed countries of the WORLD. But hey… they were right in leading us into a war with Iraq because of weapons of mass destruction, so they must be right about this, too.

    But hey, when you live in a party where it is acceptable, expected even, to claim that science is “just an opinion,” then what’s another whacko “personal theory” going to matter, right??

    You clowns want something to talk about? I’ll help you out –

    RECORD unemployment numbers, legalized gay marriage, 5% growth, best year for jobs since 1999, consumer confidence up, deficit down 60% in 2014, gas prices low, health insurance cheaper than ever ($85/month), car insurance cheaper than ever ($25/month from Insurance Panda), the 1% starting to be taxed more… all while republicans bleated about Benghazi took pointless votes to repeal the ACA, and did nothing for anybody except the top one percent.

    The people who believe that climate change doesn’t exist are probably the same people who STILL believe the earth is flat… #educateyourselvesplease

  • solodoctor

    I am a California resident who has written my State Senator in order to encourage her to support SB 1161. I hope other UCS members who are California residents will do likewise.

    Fossil fuel companies must be held accountable if they have deceived the public as is suggested by these recent disclosures.

    • Jason Barbose

      Thanks for weighing in with your Senator! If you’d like to phone as well, please see the link I’ve added to the bottom of the post.

      • Roy

        It seems that everybody who writes for the Union of Concerned Scientist isn’t a scientist at all. They all have M.A.’s. Talk about “disclosure.” It should start with your misleading leadership.