Climate denial arguments will find their way into a federal judge's tutorial on climate scienceA federal judge's climate science tutorial as part of a climate liability case will include the classic denier arguments put forth by the Heartland Institute. Photo credit: Wikimedia

By Amy Westervelt

Two friend of the court briefs have been filed in advance of the climate science tutorial scheduled for Wednesday by U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup, both from a conservative think tank heavily funded by the fossil fuel industry, the Heartland Institute. While fossil fuel companies have themselves recently acknowledged the reality of anthropogenic climate change, Heartland has stuck to its philosophy of asserting that man-made emissions have little to do with climate change. The authors of the amicus curiae brief claim there is no scientific consensus and in fact, “global warming will be small, slow, and net-beneficial.”

Those who file amicus briefs “can get away with a lot more than the defendants; they’re not constrained by evidence in the record, so [they are] very happy to supply very opinionated positions,” said Daniel Riesel, principal of the New York environmental law firm Sive, Paget & Riesel.

The experts listed on the brief include Dr. Willie Wei-Hock Soon (and his frequent collaborator Dr. David Legates), whose work has long been funded by oil companies and conservative interest groups, including the American Petroleum Institute, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, Southern Company, and ExxonMobil. Soon, an astrophysicist, is best known for his largely discredited view that global warming and the resulting climate change are caused by fluctuations in solar patterns and that too much ice is actually bad for polar bears. LeGates is the only climatologist in the bunch; he was asked to resign as Delaware’s state climatologist in 2011 and then was fired when he refused.

Alsup responded to the brief by asking for the source of funding of their research. He gave them a deadline of 5 p.m. PDT Tuesday to respond.

The other authors include Dr. William M. Briggs, who bills himself as a “statistician to the stars!”; Christopher Monckton of Brenchley, a viscount and former politician with the nationalist U.K. Independence Party who holds a Masters in architecture; Michael Limburg, an electronics engineer and vice president of the European Institute for Climate and Energy (a European version of the Heartland Institute, which rejects the notion of anthropogenic climate change and pushes for an end to global climate accords); Dr. Dietrich Jeschke, a lecturer in applied control theory at the University of Applied Sciences in Flensburg, Germany; and James Morrison, who is listed only as an undergraduate in Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia.

It’s unusual to list an undergraduate student as a scientific expert, particularly in a brief related specifically to a tutorial on the scientific evidence underpinning a case.

The plaintiffs in the case will lean on mainstream science and the scientific consensus as represented by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which concluded in its Fifth Assessment Report in 2014 that, “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.”

While fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil have publicly supported the IPCC work and even supported the landmark Paris Climate Agreement signed in 2015, advocacy groups they have funded in the past have continued pressing denial arguments.

“The various fossil fuel companies are in different places around this—Exxon has been called into question for their behavior, and their representation historically of climate science in public settings, and one might imagine since Judge Alsup is interested in the history of science, that some companies would want to characterize a history of uncertainty,” says Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy and chief climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “They may want to make the argument that there has been historic uncertainty, or might selectively represent the nature of scientific uncertainty.”

The Heartland brief, however, seems to go beyond mere uncertainty into the territory of claiming that global warming poses little to no threat to mankind. It remains to be seen what arguments the fossil fuel defendants will make during Alsup’s tutorial on Wednesday.

While climate denial arguments may still be acceptable in Congress and popular in the Trump administration, they may not play so well in Alsup’s courtroom. This is not the first time Alsup has ordered an educational-style hearing to establish the facts of a case. In a highly technical case involving Google and Oracle, he learned to code in Java. In hearing a recent case between ride-sharing companies Waymo and Uber, he ordered a tutorial on self-driving cars. He also became so agitated at the lawyers in that case that his banter with them inspired a parody Twitter account that became so popular, Alsup announced in the courtroom that the account was not actually his.

The tutorial will be videotaped, so whatever arguments are made will be saved and available for public viewing.