By Steve Hanley
William Alsup is a federal district court judge for the northern district of California. His courtroom is in San Francisco, where he is presiding over a case brought by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland against 5 major oil companies — Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP.
The cities allege they will be on the hook for billions of dollars worth of infrastructure upgrades to protect their citizens from rising ocean levels brought on by global warming. Climate scientists say that temperatures in the Arctic this winter have been as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual. Those warm temperatures are causing glaciers and sea ice in the region to melt faster than anyone expected. All that melting water is making ocean levels rise.
The plaintiffs in the suit claim the higher temperatures are directly related to higher levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere caused by burning fossil fuels. The two cities say the oil companies have known about the connection between fossil fuels and global warming for decades, but kept their knowledge secret in order to continue doing business as the usual manner.
Naturally, the oil companies dispute those claims, saying it was impossible to predict the impact of burning fossil fuels until quite recently. They deny misleading the public about the harm that could come from using their products.
Judge Alsup is a bit of a legend in legal circles. In a patent infringement case some years ago, he taught himself the computer program Java so he could better understand the technical aspects of the case. Recently, he presided over a high profile case in which Waymo accused Uber of stealing proprietary information about self driving car technology.
To school himself to hear this current litigation, the judge propounded a set or 8 questions for the litigants to answer. This is what the judge came up with:
- What caused the various ice ages (including the “little ice age” and prolonged cool periods) and what caused the ice to melt? When they melted, by how much did sea level rise?
- What is the molecular difference by which CO2 absorbs infrared radiation but oxygen and nitrogen do not?
- What is the mechanism by which infrared radiation trapped by CO2 in the atmosphere is turned into heat and finds its way back to sea level?
- Does CO2 in the atmosphere reflect any sunlight back into space such that the reflected sunlight never penetrates the atmosphere in the first place?
- Apart from CO2, what happens to the collective heat from tail pipe exhausts, engine radiators, and all other heat from combustion of fossil fuels? How, if at all, does this collective heat contribute to warming of the atmosphere?
- In grade school, many of us were taught that humans exhale CO2 but plants absorb CO2 and return oxygen to the air (keeping the carbon for fiber). Is this still valid? If so, why hasn’t plant life turned the higher levels of CO2 back into oxygen? Given the increase in human population on Earth (four billion), is human respiration a contributing factor to the buildup of CO2?
- What are the main sources of CO2 that account for the incremental buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere?
- What are the main sources of heat that account for the incremental rise in temperature on Earth?
Those questions have sparked a lively date on social media. Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M created a forum on Twitter where people could post their answers.
The major development in the case so far is that the oil companies have admitted, on the record in open court, that climate change is real. That flies in the face of the furious denials emanating from political leaders in Washington who are in thrall to organizations like the American Petroleum Institute and Koch Industries.
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This post is supported by CMC Markets; images from StockSnap