20 march 2018

8 Answers to the Judge’s Climate Change Questions in Cities vs. Fossil Fuels Case

San Francisco and Oakland want to hold fossil fuel companies liable for sea level rise costs. In an unusual move, the judge ordered a climate tutorial for the court.

John H. Cushman Jr. Inside Climate News, Marach 20 2018

Judicial review is about to meet peer review in a federal courtroom in San Francisco, where sparring cities and fossil fuel companies have been called to brief U.S. District Judge William Alsup this Wednesday on the basics of climate change.

It's an unusual arrangement, seemingly borrowed from patent litigation, where judges commonly hear initial testimony from both sides on pertinent scientific details.

That's done because the U.S. Supreme Court has directed that the meaning of a patent's words is a matter of law, to be decided by a judge—not a matter of fact to be decided by a jury.

You wouldn't think the science of climate change was like that. No court finding can dictate whether man-made greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet and causing damage to people, ecosystems and cities. A jury, if this case reaches one, ought to be able to comprehend overwhelming evidence that explains these realities.

In this case, the cities of San Francisco and Oakland are trying to hold five major fossil fuel producers liable for the costs of protecting their coastal areas from rising seas, saying the companies knew long ago that burning hydrocarbons would warm the planet and melt the ice caps.

For whatever reason, the judge decided to ponder the science in a mock classroom, rather than simply let the advocates for both sides spell it out in briefs. And to kick-start the discussion, he issued a quirky set of preliminary questions.

It would have been pretty easy for him to look up the answers, in the works of learned societies, federal inter-agency committees, and the authoritative United Nations climate change panel.

Scientists quickly circulated their own answers, like these on Twitter and these in a lengthy, crowd-sourced posting. NASA Jet Propulsion Lab earth scientist Alex Gardner's talk in the video above provides another overview of ice sheets, climate change and sea level rise.

Here's a quick, simple, plain English rundown of answers, with the questions abbreviated.


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