Danielle Smith: Climate change trial backfires on environmentalists

FILE - This Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, file photo shows Exxon Mobil's Billings Refinery in Billings, Mont.
FILE - This Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, file photo shows Exxon Mobil's Billings Refinery in Billings, Mont. AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File

There was so much fanfare around the great American climate change lawsuit that I expected a lot more coverage of it. So why wasn’t there?

U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California – a Clinton appointee – had requested a climate change tutorial to hear the “best science” on the issue on March 21, in advance of the full trial getting underway.

I assumed this was a bit of a trap to get the defendants to argue that human activity doesn’t cause climate change, thereby proving the case against them using their own arguments.

The contention of the plaintiffs is that the five North American-based energy companies engaged in a conspiracy to cover up the truth that their products caused global warming. The cities of Oakland and San Francisco now want BP, Chevron, Conoco-Phillips, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell to pony up the cost for damage caused in their communities.

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They aren’t the only ones, mind you. An NDP MPP in Ontario has introduced a bill declaring large emitters responsible for damage and seeking compensation, including for the “psychological pain” caused by dealing with natural disasters in Ontario.

There is a list compiled of the top 100 greenhouse gas emitters in this 2017 report. I wondered how China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran – the top four “polluters” – are going to be forced to compensate those claiming harm?

Conveniently, they aren’t named in the suit – for obvious reasons. Not only would they tell the plaintiffs to go pound sand, but the goal of this lawsuit isn’t really about getting compensation. It’s about getting media attention.

That’s why it was so puzzling to see the hearing go virtually unreported. The only article I read was this one, which seemed to show the judge admonishing the oil companies for allowing the Chevron lawyer to be the only one to speak.

“You can’t get away with sitting there in silence and later say he wasn’t speaking for us,” the judge said.

Imagine my surprise when I was sent a link to a very different account of events written by an independent columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Phelim McAleer.

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LISTEN: Danielle Smith talks to Phelim McAleer about a climate change lawsuit in the U.S.

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He decided to go himself because he didn’t trust it would be reported on accurately. McAleer said the environmental advocacy website Grist likened the proceedings to the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, which attracted hordes of journalists and thousands of onlookers to see whether Thomas Scopes would be found guilty of teaching evolution in violation of Tennessee state law.

In that case, Scopes was found guilty, technically, but the fundamentalist Democrat candidate William Jennings Bryan was “subjected to severe ridicule and forced to make ignorant and contradictory statements to the amusement of the crowd” and died five days later “publicly humiliated and his fundamentalist beliefs had been disgraced.”

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So in a sense it kind of was like the Scopes trial, but it was the environmentalists who ended up disgraced.

According to McAleer, the judge’s questions set the plaintiffs and their experts on their heels.

Oxford physicist Myles Allen was reprimanded by the judge for using misleading information, claiming a graph showed evidence of warming when it clearly did not.

Oceanographer Gary Griggs – who was hired to prove the oil companies were responsible for climate change – spent much of his time describing how natural forces had caused previous periods of warming and freezing.

The supposed “smoking gun” internal report that supposedly proved a conspiracy to hide the truth of global warming, was actually a slide presentation from the 1995 International Plant Protection Convention (IPCC) report that was public information.

The judge asked the plaintiff lawyer, “If you want to respond, I’ll let you respond… Anything to say?” The answer was No.

I asked McAleer if the full two-hour transcript or video of the event was available. He had asked to be able to film or bring a stenographer to record and was told he couldn’t, but the video would be made available two weeks after the event. Unfortunately, it turns out someone forgot to hit the record button. Fancy that.

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Danielle Smith can be reached at


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