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Climate ChangeHow an Early Oil Industry Study Became Key in Climate Lawsuits

How an Early Oil Industry Study Became Key in Climate Lawsuits

Carroll Muffett began wondering in 2008 when the world’s biggest oil corporations had first understood the science of climate change and their product’s role in causing it. A lawyer then working as a consultant to environmental groups, he began researching the query at night and on weekends, ordering decades-old reports, books, and magazines off Amazon and eBay, or from academic libraries.

It became a years-long quest, and as he pressed on, Muffett noticed one report kept coming up within the footnotes of the memos and papers he was poring through — a 1968 paper commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute, the powerful fossil fuel trade group, and written by Elmer Robinson and Bob Robbins, scientists on the Stanford Research Institute, often known as SRI. Muffett wasn’t sure what it said, however it was cited so often he knew there have to be something big in it. Then a part of Stanford University, SRI wasn’t an atypical department, but a contract research outfit that had been intertwined from its founding with oil and gas interests. The paper had been delivered privately to the petroleum institute, not published like typical academic work, and only a number of copies had spilled into the general public realm. Long since forgotten, they’d been gathering dust in a handful of university libraries. Eventually, through an interlibrary loan, Muffett managed to come up with one.

“There appears to be little question that the potential damage to the environment may very well be severe,” the authors wrote within the 1968 paper.

“Once I actually opened it, it was immediately clear how profoundly vital it was,” he remembers. “It was absolutely a jaw drop moment.” This was the earliest, most detailed and most direct evidence Muffett had yet seen that the industry’s own experts had warned its largest trade organization, not only a person company, “that the science around climate change was clear, it was abundant, and that one of the best indications were that the risks were really substantial.” The paper’s delivery date put it well before Exxon’s extensive Nineteen Seventies research into climate risks.

In stark terms, the decades-old paper explained that the world’s use of fossil fuels was releasing carbon that had been buried for millennia, and “it is probably going that noticeable increases in temperature could occur,” if that burning continued. That might mean warming oceans, melting ice caps, and sea levels that might rise by as much as 4 feet per decade, the report predicted. “There appears to be little question that the potential damage to the environment may very well be severe,” the authors concluded. “The prospect for the long run have to be of great concern.”

The Center for International Environmental Law, an advocacy group Muffett now runs, published excerpts in 2016. Now, the paper — together with a follow-up that Robinson and Robbins produced in 1969 — is playing a key role in a wave of lawsuits searching for to carry oil corporations accountable for climate change.

The 1968 Stanford Research Institute report on climate change, written by Bob Robbins (left) and Elmer Robinson (right).
courtesy of the Center for International Environmental Law; courtesy of SRI International

Minnesota, Delaware, Rhode Island, Baltimore, and Honolulu are amongst about two dozen U.S. states and localities suing the industry. A number of the cases seek compensation for the damage wrought by climate-driven disasters like floods, fires, and warmth waves, plus the fee of preparing for future impacts. Others allege violations of state or local laws prohibiting fraud and other deceitful business practices, or requiring corporations to warn consumers of a product’s potential dangers. The defendants, which vary from case to case, include the American Petroleum Institute in addition to major corporations corresponding to ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, and ConocoPhillips.

The suits’ common thread is the charge that the industry has long understood emissions from oil and gas combustion would drive warming — and create a bunch of major global risks — but carried out a decades-long misinformation campaign to confuse the general public and stop a shift to cleaner fuels. Most cite Robinson and Robbins’ work. The pair’s reports have been proffered internationally too, most notably in a Dutch case wherein a court last yr ordered Shell to slash its carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030; the corporate is appealing. European courts have been more favorable for cases searching for to force such reductions or push governments to strengthen climate policies, while U.S. suits generally aim at extracting financial penalties or compensation from corporations.

Last month, Latest Jersey became probably the most recent state to sue. “Because of this of the fossil fuel industry’s lies and deceit, the State has paid billions of dollars to wash up climate change-induced disasters like Superstorm Sandy; to fortify the Jersey Shore from future storms; and to guard its people, businesses, infrastructure, and natural resources from a myriad of other climate change hazards,” its grievance charged. “It’s time to halt this deceptive conduct and place responsibility for remedying its effects on Defendants, where it belongs, reasonably than the taxpayers of Latest Jersey.”

The industry “can’t say they didn’t know once they commissioned the study,” a climate policy expert says of Robinson and Robbins’ research.

There’s loads of evidence of fossil fuel corporations’ early awareness of climate risks, some now even predating 1968 — indeed, the science was already a matter of public discussion within the mid-Sixties — and the Robinson and Robbins papers are only two of many documents the court filings marshal. Others include Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times 2015 reports on Exxon’s internal climate research and its use of that science to organize its assets to resist dangers corresponding to rising seas and intensifying storms. Those investigations focused mainly on the Nineteen Seventies and later — after the papers by Robinson and Robbins were written.

But those papers pack a novel punch that goes beyond just their early dates, said Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, an advocacy group that works with localities considering climate litigation: The industry “can’t say they didn’t know once they commissioned the study.” That shall be key if any of the pending cases reaches trial, said Patrick Parenteau, emeritus professor and senior climate policy fellow at Vermont Law School. “There’s going to be a ferocious fight over evidence, and the validity, the admissibility, of those various documents,” in response to Parenteau, and the Robinson and Robbins’ papers’ direct link to industry makes it more likely a judge would admit them.

The involvement of the American Petroleum Institute — whose members include nearly all the most important oil producers — also widens the scope of knowing culpability well beyond ExxonMobil, the corporate for which probably the most detailed evidence of early knowledge of climate science exists, said Wiles.

Donald Pols, director of the environmental group Milieudefensie, celebrates after a Dutch court ordered Shell to slash its emissions on May 26, 2021.

Donald Pols, director of the environmental group Milieudefensie, celebrates after a Dutch court ordered Shell to slash its emissions on May 26, 2021.

The petroleum institute declined an interview request. “The record of the past twenty years demonstrates that the industry has achieved its goal of providing reasonably priced, reliable American energy to U.S. consumers while substantially reducing emissions and our environmental footprint,” it said in a press release. “Any suggestion on the contrary is fake.”

While the thought of litigating over an issue as big as climate change may look like a leap, “that is classic product liability law,” Parenteau said. “The law’s not novel in any respect. The law is obvious vanilla. The implications are huge. The stakes are enormous — that’s what makes [the cases] different.”

It was World War II that began Elmer Robinson on his profession in meteorology. He had been a math major at UCLA, however the country needed navigators for bombing runs within the Pacific, and he looked like a promising candidate for the U.S. armed forces. So he soon found himself studying the intricacies of weather patterns and the atmosphere. The atomic bombing of Japan ended the war just as he was preparing to ship out, however the training stuck. Inside a number of years, Robinson was a meteorology and atmospheric science specialist on the Stanford Research Institute.

Robinson and Robbins believed CO2 needed to be studied since it was “the one air pollutant which has proven to be of world importance.”

By the Sixties, he was heading SRI’s environmental research department, working from a run-down wood constructing on the sting of campus. Despite the title, he was no green crusader. SRI provided studies for hire for corporations and government agencies and would eventually spin off from the university to develop into an independent, nonprofit research group. “The prime responsibility of Stanford Research Institute is to serve industry,” a booklet touting its work declared.

A photograph from the late ‘60s shows Robinson, broad and husky, with a bushy goatee and tweedy jacket, standing beside Robbins, a slimmer colleague with slicked-back hair who had expertise in chemistry. The American Petroleum Institute hired the pair to look at what ultimately became of the pollution that the burning of fossil fuels created. Corporate clients often looked to the institute for help understanding their environmental impact — partly, says Donald Nielson, writer of A Heritage of Innovation: SRI’s First Half Century, in order that they can be ready in the event that they ever needed to defend themselves in court.

The report Robinson and Robbins delivered — its ungainly title was “Sources, Abundance, and Fate of Gaseous Atmospheric Pollutants“ — was thorough and detailed, 123 pages long. They surveyed six different pollutants, five of which were harmful mainly to those that breathed them, or to crops and other flora. The sixth, carbon dioxide, posed a special problem, Robinson and Robbins explained. Many didn’t even consider it as a pollutant, they wrote, a perspective that was “perhaps fortunate for our present mode of living, centered because it is around carbon combustion.” But the boys believed it belonged of their review since it was “the one air pollutant which has proven to be of world importance.”

President Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office with scientist Roger Revelle, one of the advisers who warned him about climate change in 1965.

President Lyndon Johnson within the Oval Office with scientist Roger Revelle, considered one of the advisers who warned him about climate change in 1965.
Roger Revelle Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University of California San Diego

It was ironic, they noted, that while much attention had focused on pollutants whose damage was local and discrete, almost nobody seemed concerned about carbon dioxide’s potential to wreak havoc on a far wider scale. That dynamic had shaped efforts to cut back pollution, they noted, as higher technology began cleansing up the country’s air. “What’s lacking,” Robinson and Robbins wrote, was “work towards systems wherein CO2 emissions can be brought under control.”

Their science wasn’t ground-breaking — what Robinson and Robbins provided was simply a clear-eyed distillation of an emerging consensus. In 1965, in a message to Congress, President Lyndon Johnson, whose scientific advisors warned him about climate change, had written that “this generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a world scale” partly due to “a gradual increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

Reading that presidential letter was what had prompted Carroll Muffett to start the digging that led him to Robinson and Robbins’ reports. When the White Home is raising concerns about your product’s impact on the planet, he remembers wondering, “what responsible CEO or corporate executive doesn’t know every thing” concerning the issue in query?

So he began reading corporate histories, notes from conferences — anything that helped him understand how oil and gas corporations worked and what they cared about. “These things was publicly available within the sense that it was not locked away in a vault,” he explains. However it was hard to search out, tucked behind paywalls in corporate and scientific archives, or couched in obscure language that made searching difficult. “There was lots of information hiding on the market in plain sight.”

The 1969 paper cited models predicting atmospheric CO2 would reach 370 parts per million by 2000 — astonishingly close the actual reading of 369.71.

When he finally got his hands on Robinson and Robbins’ first report, he understood the legal consequences immediately. While even earlier documentation has since emerged, on the time the SRI paper was the earliest — and most direct — evidence Muffett had seen that industry leaders were aware of the risks continued fossil fuel use could pose. Inside a number of weeks of releasing details of the paper — Inside Climate News also reported his finding — Muffett recalls, “I had a lawyer calling me saying, ‘Are you able to send me a duplicate?’”

And there was more. Muffett had been seeing mentions of a complement Robinson and Robbins wrote in 1969, a yr after their primary report. It was even harder to trace down than the unique paper, but through a sequence of inter-library loans, his team on the Center for International Environmental Law, which had joined him within the search, eventually managed to get their hands on “like, the one copy of this thing that we could find in the US.”

It seemed the American Petroleum Institute had asked for more, and this time, the scientists offered even greater detail. They cited models predicting atmospheric carbon dioxide would reach 370 parts per million by 2000 — astonishingly near the actual reading of 369.71 at millennium’s end. Such a rise, they said, would raise global temperatures by 0.5 degrees Celsius; that was on the cash too. Polar ice cap melting attributable to further warming, Robinson and Robbins wrote, “would obviously lead to inundation of coastal areas.”

With the world now watching the risks Robinson and Robbins anticipated play out, the U.S. lawsuits citing their work face an uncertain legal path. Industry has been pushing to maneuver them to federal court, where its lawyers argue the Clean Air Act is the one valid tool for regulating greenhouse gases.

The aftermath of the Butte Fire near San Andreas, California in September 2015. California municipalities have filed climate-change lawsuits against major oil companies .

The aftermath of the Butte Fire near San Andreas, California in September 2015. California municipalities have filed climate-change lawsuits against major oil corporations .
David McNew / Getty Images

“This global challenge doesn’t lend itself to a patchwork of baseless lawsuits in state courts pursuant to state laws,” Chevron lawyer Theodore Boutrous said last month. Judges have up to now ruled against the businesses on that vital procedural issue, repeatedly returning the suits to state courts, that are seen as more favorable to plaintiffs. Now the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing corporations’ request that it intervene to maneuver the cases to federal court. The justices have asked the Justice Department for its view before deciding.

If the cases eventually get before state court juries, advocates for the litigation strategy contend they may extract massive damages — or big settlements — from industry, as happened in litigation over tobacco, opioids, and asbestos. Just like the climate suits, those cases alleged “corporate deception leveled at the general public for a long time, leading to an enormous cost to all society,” said Ben Franta, senior climate litigation research fellow at Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, who has advised some climate plaintiffs. They “are good examples that the legal system can tackle big societal harms that the opposite branches of presidency frankly are only not addressing.”

The lawsuits could speed up a clean energy transition by scaring investment away from oil and gas. If fossil fuel corporations are forced “to internalize even a fraction of the damage that they cause to society through global warming,” Franta said, “then that completely changes the business attractiveness of those corporations as investments. Their litigation exposure may very well be enormous, ultimately.”

The climate lawsuits are prone to drag on for years. “Who will have the opportunity to go the gap against the most important corporations on the earth?”

And winning damages could make an enormous difference to municipalities struggling to search out the resources to address climate-fueled disasters and prepare for worse, Wiles said. For a lot of, it boils all the way down to questions like “are we going to construct a senior center, or are we going to construct a sea wall,” he said. “It’s only a fairness issue. That is just ‘polluter pays.’”

However the cases are prone to drag on for years, and the fight is certain to be brutal. “It’s like a horse race at this point” amongst the numerous lawsuits, Parenteau said. “Who will have the opportunity to go the gap against the most important corporations on the earth, who at the moment are greater and richer than they’ve ever been, and who’ve an open checkbook” for fighting suits that might cripple them financially — and don’t hesitate to hit back at those that sue them, he said. “The celebrities have really got to align for these plaintiffs to win an enormous ticket verdict.”

Perhaps due to his common name, efforts to search out any of Bob Robbins’ relatives or colleagues to make clear his profession were unsuccessful. But as for Elmer Robinson, he eventually left the Stanford Research Institute and the apricot groves of northern California for eastern Washington’s snowy hills and a post at Washington State University. In 1985, he moved again, to develop into director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, the high-altitude station whose measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide are probably the most widely cited yardstick for tracking levels of the gas. He and Robbins had drawn on the station’s readings in each of their papers.

Elmer Robinson at NOAA's Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii.

Elmer Robinson at NOAA’s Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii.
Courtesy of Brian Lamb

As director, Robinson — who died in 2016, at 91 — worked mostly from an office on the town, but from time to time he would make the long, steep ascent to the observatory. Once, he brought a National Geographic reporter along, and so they wound together through lava fields “sometimes jagged as cinders, sometimes smooth as swirled chocolate,” the journalist wrote. Up above the clouds, gazing at a mesmerizing view, Robinson told the author that observatory records showed atmospheric carbon dioxide had risen 27 percent for the reason that mid-1800s.

Given the gas holds heat near the earth, “the greenhouse effect will not be a wild idea,” he said. “It’s pretty basic physics.” Because the years went by, and the businesses he had warned so way back kept digging and drilling, he oversaw the recording of numbers that climbed higher and better. From the side of a Hawaiian volcano, Elmer Robinson watched his prediction come true.


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