Climate communication researchers support Baltimore's climate case because, they argue, oil companies worked to deceive the public for years about its dangers.Climate communication researchers support Baltimore's climate case because, they argue, oil companies worked to deceive the public for decades about fossil fuels' role in climate change. Photo credit: Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images

By Karen Savage

A group of six individuals and three organizations who have conducted research on how fossil fuel companies have communicated their knowledge of climate change to the public, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Baltimore’s climate liability suit against ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and 23 other fossil fuel companies. 

The brief argues that the companies “affirmatively and knowingly concealed and denied the hazards that they knew would result from the normal use of their fossil fuel products by misrepresenting those products and deliberately discrediting scientific information related to climate change.”

The brief was filed Wednesday in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals by the Union of Concerned Scientists; the Center for Climate Integrity; the Chesapeake Climate Action Network; and researchers Robert Brulle, Justin Farrell, Benjamin Franta, Stephan Lewandowsky, Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran. They said the fossil fuel companies knew their products contributed to climate change and concealed that knowledge from the public.

The fossil fuel companies funded individuals, organizations and research to discredit climate science, the group wrote. The group also said that while publicly denying climate change, the companies were working privately to protect their own assets from its impacts.

Baltimore alleges in its lawsuit that the fossil fuel producers and distributors knew for decades about fossil fuels’ role in driving climate change but deliberately failed to inform the public about those risks. The city is charging the companies with eight violations, including public nuisance, private nuisance, failure to warn and violations of Maryland’s consumer protection laws. 

The fossil fuel company defendants, led by Chevron, moved the suit to federal court shortly after it was filed, but U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander ruled in June that the suit belongs in state court, where the city filed it in 2018. The fossil fuel companies have appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit.

The group of organizations and individuals who filed the brief Wednesday said it is critical that the court have a full documentation of the misrepresentations made by the companies as it considers the appeal.

The group said as early as 1954 the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade association, became aware of research showing that the burning of fossil fuels was responsible for  increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“Through the 1950s and 1960s, there was agreement among industry, government, and academic scientists that the observed increase in carbon dioxide concentrations, caused by fossil fuel combustion, would likely cause an increase in average global temperatures, and therefore a variety of climate-related impacts. By the late 1970s, there was general consensus that this would occur,” wrote the group, adding Exxon and Shell scientists were among those contributing to the growing body of research.

The group said the fossil fuel companies then took steps to conceal that knowledge. They launched campaigns to discredit the science and sway public opinion, including the 1999 establishment of the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), which was initially part of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), of which the fossil fuel companies were members.

The fossil fuel companies also “funded individuals, organizations, and research to discredit the growing body of publicly available climate science,” said the group, adding that between 1998 and 2017 ExxonMobil “spent at least $36 million funding 69 organizations that misrepresented and persistently sought to discredit the scientific consensus that defendants’ fossil fuel products were causing climate change.”

Despite pledging to stop funding individuals or groups that deny climate change, ExxonMobil continues to “fund individuals like Dr. [Wei-Hock] Soon, as well as groups that spread misinformation on climate science,” the group said.

While running disinformation campaigns to downplay the threats posed by climate change, the group said the fossil fuel companies took steps to “protect their own assets from climate risks through internal research, infrastructure improvements, and plans to exploit reserves in a warming world.”

A Chevron spokesperson said the company had no comment on the brief. ExxonMobil and Shell did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

“Defendants had actual knowledge of the risks associated with their fossil fuel products as early as the late 1950s and no later than 1968,” wrote the group.

“Despite their knowledge and expertise on climate science, defendants affirmatively promoted the use of their products through various means. Defendants thus created the nuisance alleged by plaintiff and should be held liable.”

Disclosure: Climate Liability News is a project of Climate Communications and Law (CCL). Richard Wiles, who is a CCL board member, is also the Director of the Center for Climate Integrity at the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. Alyssa Johl, a CLN board member, is also on the staff of the Center for Climate Integrity.

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