Advocates blame oil giants for climate change, call Chevron No. 1 culprit
Sept. 13--As scientists worry that climate change is stoking deadly hurricanes in the Atlantic and punishing wildfires in the West, a new study seeks to drive change by casting blame, connecting global warming to a roster of 90 companies topped by Bay Area-based Chevron.
The products these companies generate -- mostly oil, gas and coal -- have caused half of the increase in global temperatures since the 1800s, according to the report published in the journal Climate Change. Some of the firms have been responsible for nearly 3 percent of the total carbon dioxide driving global warming, the report said, though they knew in some cases that their actions were harmful.
The study is the latest piece of a broad effort to tie individual companies to climate change in a bid to pressure them and force reforms. It comes as scientists hone their ability to assign accountability for the cost of a warming planet, and as President Trump, who has called climate change a hoax, leads an administration that is stripping away rules designed to curb emissions of problematic greenhouse gases.
With the vacuum of federal regulation, some legal experts and environmental advocates said, the fight over global warming -- and the emerging question of who should pay for its damage -- will increasingly move to the courts. There, studies like the one published last week may be powerful evidence.
"We're seeing a lot of litigation around climate change and environmental issues now because the government is walking away from its obligation to protect human health and welfare," said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University in New York. "This (new report) is exactly the sort of study that plaintiffs will rely on in seeking to attribute blame for climate change."
So far, the legal effort to address global warming has focused primarily on getting regulators to do more. But lawsuits filed this summer by Marin County, San Mateo County and the Southern California city of Imperial Beach (San Diego County) target oil companies directly.
In the closely watched case, the three communities are suing 37 fossil-fuel producers over damage they say is caused by rising seas.
The new report is authored by a group of researchers connected through the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group. San Mateo County attorney John Beiers called the report, which suggests that the 90 companies responsible for increasing temperatures are behind 30 percent of sea-level rise, an "important peer-reviewed study that confirms key elements" of his lawsuit.
Some legal experts said the study could also bolster high-stakes investigations led by attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts over ExxonMobil's contribution to global warming. The issue there is whether the company misled investors about the damage it was doing.
Neither ExxonMobile nor Chevron responded Tuesday to requests for comment. The science of attributing climate change to specific companies remains young, and critics of the latest report have said the methodology is simplistic and the conclusions riddled with error. Another difficult question is how much responsibility consumers bear for using products and services they know contribute to global warming.
The study built on a 2013 report that estimated 90 companies were responsible for nearly two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions. Using similar models that quantify the amount of heat-trapping gas released through the extraction and development of fossil fuels, the study attributed levels of emissions to individual companies. The new study goes a step further, calculating how much a company's emissions contributed to climate change.
The biggest culprits, it said, were in the business of oil, gas and coal, many with household names, while a few were cement manufacturers. Investor-owned Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP and Shell were each said to be responsible for 2 to 3 percent of increasing temperatures and sea-level rise between 1880 and 2010. State-owned companies in Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United Kingdom posted similar numbers.
Peter Frumhoff, one of the study's authors and the chief climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the findings on emissions provide evidence needed to begin going after those behind global warming.
"We can put a number on the contribution to climate change on specific companies," he said. "That's been a missing link in the conversation about responsibility, including legal responsibility."
With hurricanes Harvey and Irma causing tens of billions of dollars in damages this month, and one of the worst wildfire seasons causing hundreds of millions in losses in the West, Frumhoff predicted an uptick in such lawsuits, especially with federal regulators sitting on the sidelines. While identifying exactly how much global warming contributed to each of these disasters remains difficult, there's consensus among scientists that warming raised the probability the events would occur and worsened the blow.
"The costs of climate change are enormous and growing," Frumhoff said. "It seems to me that it's appropriate for decision-makers at all levels to determine whether there are actionable steps, as were taken against tobacco, asbestos and lead companies."
Burger, at Columbia University, cautioned that fighting for government regulators to take action on greenhouse gas emissions remains imperative. The science showing the benefit of regulating the gases is unequivocal.
"The role of the science in litigation is not going to get ferreted out for years," Burger said. "Why isn't the existing science moving the government to take direct action? That seems to be the primary problem."
Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @kurtisalexander