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California Sues Over Global Warming, Judge Orders Climate Lesson

March 14, 2018

The descent of climate science into the surreal is about to take another comedic slide. 

The descent of climate science into the surreal is about to take another comedic slide. A judge has ordered the State of California and a handful of oil companies to present to him on 21 March “a two-part tutorial on the subject of global warming and climate change.”

Why? The cities of San Francisco and Oakland representing California are suing. They claim that British Petroleum and a group of other oil companies have created a “nuisance.” How? By not admitting, or hiding, or fibbing about what they knew about their products’ influence on global warming.

Of course, as we’ll see in a moment, nobody knows how much influence oil sales have on global warming. But the judge says he can learn all he needs to know about these kinds of attributions in court. Over four short hours.

Class is in Session

The judge ordered that his first lesson should “trace the history of scientific study of climate change, beginning with scientific inquiry into the formation and melting of the ice ages, periods of historical cooling and warming, smog, ozone, nuclear winter, volcanoes, and global warming.”

Lawyers from California, or whatever experts they pay to be their honest mouthpieces, get one hour. Then oil companies, or their experts, get an hour.

Lesson two “will set forth the best science now available on global warming, glacier melt, sea rise, and coastal flooding.” Another hour for each side.

It’s anybody’s guess what the judge will make of the information he receives, or how it will play in the remainder of the trial. But given the state of disagreement among the world’s top experts, four hours isn’t enough to do justice to the subject.

The Unknown Effects of Oil

If anybody tells you he can peg the exact contribution any company has made to global warming, he is either lying or a lunatic, or he is too in love with his slide rule.

We can’t underestimate the temptation to lie, perhaps by omission, when there is lots and lots and more than lots of money that can be taken from rich oil companies. Lunacy is unlikely. But we can’t dismiss it, especially if anyone involved in the trial is convinced the world is doomed unless we give up fossil fuels.

I should explain the slide-rule quip. To attribute a change in the climate to a particular thing, like an oil company’s sales (or whatever), we first need to demonstrate that we can predict the climate with low to no error, and with high certainty.

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The models that make these assumed excellent and reliable predictions must account in some way for the oil sales. Somewhere inside these models, then, there must be statements like “If oil sales go up by X amount, the temperature does this-and-such.” (These statements, of course, will be complex.)

The next step would be to remove the effects of the oil company from the models, and make new forecasts. The difference in the prediction of the climate models with the oil sales and the models without would represent the contribution of the oil sales to climate.

Climate Models Aren’t Accurate Enough

There are two big problems with this scheme. Our best climate models do not make low-to-no error predictions. They also have high uncertainty. They cannot be trusted. The truth is, we still have a lot to learn about what causes changes in the climate.

The second problem is of great import to those who are financially interested. The models do not internally represent oil sales, nor anything like it. The models do take as inputs carbon dioxide and other gases. And these gases are produced by using oil (and its byproduct gasoline, etc.) But one can only approximate the amount of yearly change in atmospheric gases caused by oil sales. Meaning there is uncertainty.

We can add the uncertainty from these gas measurements to the uncertainty from the attribution claims. It’s a good bet that those making claims against the oil companies won’t mention the uncertainty. Lawyers want rulings in their favor.

The Politicization of Science

Anyway, the mental image of lawyers arguing over these and other unsolved open scientific problems in court is precious. But not unforeseen.

Climatology has for years been more a branch of politics than science. And nothing is more political than the enormous sums of money oil generates. This money produces a gleam in the eyes of politicians who believe they have found a way to control it.

All for the good of the children, of course.

[Originally Published at The Stream]

William M. ‘Matt’ Briggs is a policy advisor at The Heartland Institute. @mattstat