Brian Lehrer: Brian Lehrer, on WNYC. Now, our climate story of the week, which we're doing every Tuesday all this year on the show. Today, we'll take a closer look at a new climate-related lawsuit that came up briefly on the show last week when we spent each day covering Climate Week NYC. Earlier this month, California Governor, Gavin Newsom, have you heard this, announced a lawsuit against five major oil companies seeking compensation for damages caused by climate change.
The state alleges that ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell, ConocoPhillips, and the American Petroleum Institute have caused tens of billions of dollars in damages and that they downplayed the risks of fossil fuels on the climate that they knew about. These types of lawsuits, sometimes classified as consumer protection cases, are playing out in many different states and municipalities across the country including here in New York City.
This news, according to climate activists from California, is big. That's because California is a major oil-producing state and the fifth-largest economy in the world, by the way. Joining me now to explain what's behind the lawsuit and how Governor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta will proceed is Blanca Begert, California climate reporter for Politico where she anchors the California Climate Newsletter. Blanca, thanks for coming on for this. Welcome back to WNYC.
Blanca Begert: Hi, thank you so much for having me.
Brian Lehrer: Are they alleging in California- is Governor Newsom alleging that the oil companies defrauded Californians and everyone else by knowing the effects of their product on the climate and trying to cover it up?
Blanca Begert: Yes, that's definitely part of the claim is that they deceive the public. The lawsuit has a couple of different claims. One is public nuisance, which is unreasonable interference with the rights of the public, but then also damages to the state's natural resources. Then also, yes, deception claims about misleading with false marketing and products liability with the failure to warn about the harms that they knew about.
Brian Lehrer: Not just failure to harms, but as just indicating, and I want to drill down on this a little bit, the allegation that the oil companies have continued their deception by promoting themselves as green with small investments in alternative fuels while primarily still investing in fossil fuel products. Do you have more details on how California is seeing this as misleading?
Blanca Begert: Yes. We know that historically, like since the '50s, fossil fuel companies have known about the link between burning fossil fuels and climate change. They've produced historically some of the best science on this, but then instead of sharing that research, buried it and downplayed the risks for decades, emphasizing the uncertainty and funding widespread disinformation campaigns. In the recent years, their tactics have shifted, but lots of anti-oil advocates and such have maintained and shown with increasing documentation that these deceiving campaigns have continued through today like you're saying with promoting themselves as green with small investments in alternative fuels, but then also still investing the bulk in fossil fuels.
I think some legal analysts have questioned whether these cases will be able to show that these companies are still engaged in this deceptive action, but there are revelations that have continued to come out. The Wall Street Journal last week had published new internal documents from Exxon showing that even once it was already publicly- like in 2006- arguing that climate change was a big risk that required global action, it was still privately strategizing to discredit concerns. A lot of more information like this is coming out in these lawsuits that are already existing.
Brian Lehrer: Listeners, we know we have some of you tuning in early on the West Coast so we want to hear from you if you're in California. Have you been following this new lawsuit, and what are your thoughts or questions? 212-433-WNYC if you're in the 213 call over to the 212 over here in New York. Maybe you want to weigh in on how climate change impacts your day-to-day life in California Anyone else, call in with your questions for our guest, California climate reporter, Blanca Begert from Politico, 212-433-WNYC. You don't have to be in California. You can be anywhere. 212-433-9692. You can also text a comment or question to that number, or tweet @BrianLehrer.
Let me ask you if you know about what evidence the Attorney General of California is laying out in the allegation that the fossil fuel companies have been "suppressing and spreading disinformation on the topic to delay climate action." Was there something that the fossil fuel companies could have known about the effects of fossil fuels on the climate that climate scientists weren't already pointing out to the public anyway?
Blanca Begert: I think especially in the earlier years of this type of research, the fossil fuel companies, they had some of the most sophisticated models and people working on this because it's integral to their business. They were the ones who had invested the most in it to understand the impacts of fossil fuels and the long-term sustainability of their industry. We've known for a while that they knew about the impacts, or the link between fossil fuels and climate change, but more evidence just keeps coming out.
There was a report last year from a research paper out of Harvard that looked at Exxon's models from like 40 years ago and just showed just how scarily spot on they were with what's actually happened. Yes, if you look at most of the investing and marketing and public messaging of these companies for decades, they've been about emphasizing that there's scientific uncertainty, even though they're on the record saying that there is scientific certainty about this link. That's the evidence that the attorney general has and what we'll be bringing forward.
Brian Lehrer: The lawsuit seeks to make the fossil fuel companies pay into an abatement fund. I'm thinking now of the tobacco industry settlement, that huge settlement from years ago now after they were exposed as having covered up knowledge of the health effects of tobacco. Have the California officials pinpointed an amount or how that money would be used to mitigate the effects of fossil fuels on the climate?
Blanca Begert: Yes, [inaudible 00:07:59] officials have estimated that the damage done in California is in the tens of billions of dollars. I think Rob Bond has said, if not hundreds of billions of dollars because the damages and the costs associated are expected to increase significantly.
Yes, like you said, there's precedents for this abatement fund which the state would be looking for to create a fund that the companies would pay into. It really is a focus on adaptation, so to help the state recover from extreme weather events like floods and fire, and also prepare for the future effects of climate change.
Brian Lehrer: Infrastructure projects, things like that. What about individual homeowners who maybe lost their homes in a wildfire that can be the extent of which can be traced to climate change?
Blanca Begert: I'm not sure exactly how the funds would be paid out, but that certainly seems like it'd be part of the purview of preparing and recovering from climate impacts. The lawsuit cites wildfires wiping out entire communities, toxic smoke clogging the air, deadly heat waves, and things like that, as droughts parching wells as the impacts they'd be looking to seek damages for.
Brian Lehrer: Here's a text from a listener who wants to make a different kind of analogy and recommendation, a different kind of analogy to the tobacco companies, but a different recommendation. This says, "While I understand the rationale behind California's lawsuit against big oil, it seems to me that the better analog would be the car companies. After all, the car companies regularly run advertisements explicitly saying that cars are safe when in reality no car is safe. I think this listener means not just from crashes, but from its effects on the climate." I guess maybe electric vehicles would be safe in that respect but even they have some climate impact. Then it goes on to say, "Tobacco companies are required to put warnings on the advertisements, and I think that's the heart of this text. Tobacco companies are required to put warnings on the advertisements, car companies should be required to do the same," writes Bob in East Rockaway.
Let me refocus that a little bit back to the fossil fuel companies, so maybe the car companies, but particularly the fossil fuel companies, are the lawsuits asking for anything like that? You could see where the listener is coming from if tobacco, of course, you can't advertise tobacco on broadcast media anymore, but in print, they have to have these warnings and there are warning labels on the packages. So maybe there need to be warning labels on the gas pumps and other things that dispense fossil fuel products. That would be an interesting thing to ask for in a lawsuit or for the government to regulate. Is that in the lawsuit at all?
Blanca Begert: That's a good question. I know they'd be looking for these companies to stop any deceptive practices. I'm not sure if they'd be looking for those types of warnings. I know that with the tobacco companies, I believe that those types of warnings emerged also from these types of legal actions because earlier, before the '90s, they were also concealing evidence that was linking smoking to cancer.
I think it, it was through the process of these types of lawsuits that they had to put that information out there. There's been similar types of suits brought against the opioid companies, or lead paint manufacturers where they've also had to address the harms, but also change the way that they market their products.
Brian Lehrer: Michael in Brooklyn, you're on WNYC. Hi, Michael.
Michael: Hey, how are you? Thank you. I don't know, I'm hearing the details of this and I hate to find myself playing devil's advocate for oil companies. I'm 50 years old and I've known my entire life that fossil fuels and cars pollute and hurt the environment. The fundamentals of this lawsuit sound a little bit silly to me.
It seems like maybe California should be suing the American people for buying so many SUVs and gas guzzlers and driving everywhere instead of trying to blame the oil companies for supplying what Americans have been demanding all along. Again, to say that people didn't know that cars pollute is ridiculous to me. I'll leave it at that and I consider myself an environmentalist [crosstalk] --
Brian Lehrer: We are always for devil's advocate questions on this show, that's for sure. Michael, thank you for raising that.
Michael: Oh, there you go.
Brian Lehrer: It's certainly a defense since the court system is an adversarial system. If we consider the fossil fuels companies the devil, [laughs] then they will have devil's advocates in the form of well-paid lawyers. I guess they could at least argue something like Michael was just saying Blanca that anybody who's been alive in this country since the '80s, let's say, knows that global warming is a thing and where it comes from, and so it's on us. What do you think the state of California would say to that?
Blanca Begert: So, that very much is an argument that the oil industry has made in response to these types of lawsuits, that their products were necessary and that they didn't hide anything and the public wanted them. I do think that this will be the type of argument that California will be contending with as it tries to prove that the public was misled.
I think that is where the public deception claim aspect of this comes in and where they'll be trying to show that in numerous ways. Not to say that no one had any idea that global warming or climate change was a thing, or that cars polluted, but that in many subtle and sophisticated ways, the industry shaped the messaging to say things like, "Yes, yes, it is a thing, but it's really not as bad as some people make it seem," or, "We're actually taking action on it so you don't have to worry too much," or bringing those questions into application.
Brian Lehrer: They've been downplaying it in so many ways, and like we established before, have been advertising themselves as green for investing in a little bit of alternative energy. I'm sure they don't do anything to downplay or let's say to squash the climate change as a hoax movement on the political right.
We see that even now in the Republican primaries and the first debate among at least one fairly prominent candidate. My producer points out an irony here that listener saying, "Hey, we knew about the effects of fossil fuels for all these years." Lives in Brooklyn. This suit is being brought by the State of California against the oil companies.
One could theoretically bring a suit against the state of California for knowing what they knew about the environment and fossil fuels developing such a car-dependent infrastructure. We think of somebody who lives in Brooklyn as living in a mass transit haven, whereas if you move to California, you're moving to car country. The State of California did that. Is anybody raising that as a point of pushback or maybe a separate lawsuit?
Blanca Begert: I think the oil industry and others have raised that point that California did subsidize this. I think that has been raised. Those industries have been very active in the state as well, like lobbying and pushing to have loose regulations on oil, and obviously of course, the auto industry has been a big part of that push to continue freeway expansion. I think those will all be questions that will certainly come up in court.
Brian Lehrer: We are in our climate story of the week, which we're doing every Tuesday all this year on the show. Right now talking about the lawsuit filed by the state of California against fossil fuel companies for allegedly deceiving the public for years, and suppressing information for years that they knew regarding the impact of fossil fuels on the climate and therefore on humanity. We're talking about this with Blanca Begert, California Climate Reporter for Politico. Let's get one more call in here at least. How about Fred in Maplewood, you're on WNYC. Hi Fred.
Fred: Hi. I have a question for your guest. It's another analogy to the tobacco litigation. And then I was wondering whether there's any indication that attorneys general in other states might bring similar litigation and somehow have it consolidated or at least the result consolidated so that there would be a fund that would be distributed among all effective states rather than have this done piecemeal.
Brian Lehrer: That is a great question.
Fred: I know that the state constitutions are all different.
Brian Lehrer: Great question. Blanca, do you happen to know, is there that analogy to the tobacco lawsuit?
Blanca Begert: That is a really great question. I'll say that there are already many other states and local governments that have brought very similar lawsuits against the oil majors, including counties in California and New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island.
I know that this lawsuit is filed on behalf of the people of California so I'm not exactly sure how the cases would combine or what it would look like to have that sort of larger abatement fund, but I know that this lawsuit has major implications for those others as those other lawsuits have major implications for this one. I'm sure there's discussions going on about that, but I'm actually not sure about about if there's talk of just one large fund for everyone.
Brian Lehrer: Fred, thank you. By the way, from the reporting on this, including by you, a lot of our listeners, not in California, might have just found out that California is a major oil-producing state, and that's one of the bases for the lawsuit. People might think about Texas, Louisiana, places like that, Alaska, but not California. Who are the big players in California's oil economy, and where does all that production take Place?
Blanca Begert: California is actually, I believe, the seventh biggest oil producer in the US. It's a big refinery state. It refines most of its own gas from a declining supply of its own drilled oil, and then also from imports, and it's also a gas exporter. The defendants in this case, those are Exxon, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and BP. Chevron is actually headquartered in California.
Some of the other big oil companies there are like Marathon, Phillips, Valero, those are some of the refineries, but there's also subsidiaries of the other companies in the lawsuit that operate in the state. A lot of the drilling takes place in Kern County and the central part of the state and inland, and then the refining happens a lot along the coast.
I don't believe that in terms of the technical arguments in the case it matters that California is such an oil state, but definitely in terms of the cloud and the optics of taking on a big industry in the state where other states who have sued don't have that industry right there in the state. That makes this a big deal.
Brian Lehrer: Can I ask you a breaking news addendum question that you may or may not have focused on yet? Did you see that Fox News announced yesterday that they are going to hold a debate in late November, broadcast debate one-on-one between the governor of California, Gavin Newsom, and the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis? I imagine climate would come up in that debate, especially with Newsom trying to take a lead in the national public's awareness on this. With this lawsuit filed by the state of California, DeSantis is stopping cities in Florida from doing certain climate mitigation things.
If that debate does take place and if climate is an issue that the moderators bring up, I'll point out that at the first Republican presidential debate this summer, climate was not mentioned. The moderators didn't bring it up. The candidates didn't bring it up. I'm assuming if there is a Gavin Newsom-Ron DeSantis one-on-one debate on television, that they got to bring up climate. How do you think that would go as a California climate reporter?
Blanca Begert: I will definitely be watching and seeing if it comes up. I bet that if it does, that this lawsuit will come up because this has been a really big piece of climate news and something that Gavin Newsom has been touting as he was in New York Climate Week and different appearances. I know Trump had said that he would try to- about the prior lawsuits around big oils, these similar types of lawsuits that he would veto them or wouldn't let them go forward or try to push them to the federal courts.
I don't know what DeSantis has said, but this is definitely for Newsom who's, we know, has been eyeing at some point a run for president. This is definitely a big part of raising his profile on climate. That's something that I could envision coming up in that conversation.
Brian Lehrer: I wonder what they'll title that debate. Maybe it'll be something like two people who wish to be their party's presidential nominees, but probably won't, debate each other. Talk more about that if it happens. Blanca Begert, California Climate Reporter for POLITICO, where she writes the California Climate Newsletter. Thanks so much for coming on.
Blanca Begert: Yes, of course. Thanks for having me.
Brian Lehrer: That's our climate story of the week.
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