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California's lawsuit says oil giants downplayed climate change. Here's what to know

California accuses oil companies of misleading the public on the dangers of fossil fuels for decades. The state demands they help fund recovery efforts after climate change-fueled disasters.

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In this aerial picture taken on Aug. 21, a vehicle drives through floodwaters following heavy rains from Tropical Storm Hilary in Thousand Palms, Calif.
In this aerial picture taken on Aug. 21, a vehicle drives through floodwaters following heavy rains from Tropical Storm Hilary in Thousand Palms, Calif. Josh Edelson | AFP via Getty Images
Updated September 17, 2023 at 6:08 PM ET

The state of California has filed a sweeping climate lawsuit against Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron, as well as the domestic oil industry's biggest lobby, the American Petroleum Institute.

The suit, filed on Friday in San Francisco Superior Court, claims that the companies misled the public for decades about climate change and the dangers of fossil fuels. It demands the companies help fund recovery efforts related to California's extreme weather events, from rising sea levels to drought and wildfires, that have been supercharged by human-caused climate change.

"Oil and gas companies have privately known the truth for decades — that the burning of fossil fuels leads to climate change — but have fed us lies and mistruths to further their record-breaking profits at the expense of our environment. Enough is enough," Rob Bonta, California's attorney general, said Saturday in a statement.

Oil giants are already facing dozens of lawsuits from states and localities over their role in causing climate change. California's case adds to the legal threats facing America's oil and gas industry, forcing fossil fuel companies to defend themselves against the largest economy in the U.S. and a major oil-producing state.

On Sunday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the damage caused by oil and gas companies' deceit was "incalculable" and his state is prepared to enforce accountability.

"The scale and scope of what the state of California can do, we think can move the needle," Newsom said at a discussion organized by Climate Week NYC.

Why now?

The lawsuit comes after years of extreme weather events have battered California's economy and killed its residents. In just the past year, California has been inundated with record heat, explosive wildfires, unusual bouts of severe rain and snow, and a rising sea level that's threatened the state's shorelines — disasters that studies say were made more likely or more intense due to climate change.

California filed its lawsuit against Exxon and other oil and gas companies just a day after The Wall Street Journal reported that executives at Exxon continued in recent years to raise doubts internally about the dangers of climate change and the need to cut back on oil and gas use, even as the company publicly conceded that burning fossil fuels contributes to global warming.

Those efforts inside of Exxon, which continued until 2016, according to the Journal, were happening at the same time that scientists at the company were modeling troubling increases in carbon dioxide emissions without big reductions in fossil fuel consumption. The Journal cited internal company documents that were part of a New York state lawsuit and interviews with former executives.

In response to the Journal article, an Exxon spokesperson told NPR that the company has repeatedly acknowledged that "climate change is real, and we have an entire business dedicated to reducing emissions — both our own and others."

Wiles said in a statement this week that the documents the Journal uncovered will probably be used against Exxon in court.

What are the allegations?

In the 135-page California complaint, the state claims that oil and gas executives knew at least since the 1960s that greenhouse gasses produced by fossil fuels would warm the planet and change the climate. According to the suit, industry-funded reports themselves directly linked fossil fuel consumption to rising global temperatures, as well as damages to the air, land and water.

Despite this, oil companies intentionally suppressed the information from the public and policymakers, even investing billions to cast doubt and spread disinformation on climate change, the state alleges.

"Their deception caused a delayed societal response to global warming," the complaint said. "And their misconduct has resulted in tremendous costs to people, property, and natural resources, which continue to unfold each day."

The state further charges that the oil companies continue to deceive the public today about the science and reality of climate change, adding that the industry's investments in clean fuels and renewable energy are "nonexistent or miniscule" in comparison to the resources devoted to expanding their fossil fuel production.

How are companies responding?

Ryan Meyers, general counsel of the American Petroleum Institute, defended oil and gas companies and their commitment to reducing their environmental footprint, adding that climate policy should be for Congress "to debate and decide, not the court system."

"This ongoing, coordinated campaign to wage meritless, politicized lawsuits against a foundational American industry and its workers is nothing more than a distraction from important national conversations and an enormous waste of California taxpayer resources," Meyers said.

Similarly, Shell spokesperson Anna Arata said that the company agrees climate change needs to be addressed, but it should be done collaboratively not by legal action.

"We do not believe the courtroom is the right venue to address climate change, but that smart policy from government and action from all sectors is the appropriate way to reach solutions and drive progress," she said in a statement.

Chevron agreed that climate change policy requires coordination. The company also accused California of being "a leading promoter of oil and gas development."

"Its local courts have no constructive or constitutionally permissible role in crafting global energy policy," the company said in a statement.

Exxon, BP and ConocoPhillips did not immediately respond to NPR's request for comment.

Why Exxon?

Earlier investigations found Exxon worked for decades to create confusion about climate change, even though its own scientists had begun warning executives as early as 1977 that carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels were warming the planet, posing dire risks to human beings.

A study early this year in the journal Nature found that Exxon's scientists had modeled global warming trends with "shocking levels of skill and accuracy," according to the lead author.

Despite the warning from its own scientists, Exxon spearheaded and funded a highly effective campaign for more than 30 years that cast doubt on human-driven climate change and the science underpinning it.

Scientists with the United Nations say the world is running out of time to prevent global warming that would cause more dangerous impacts, like storms and heat waves. Climate scientists say people need to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). The world is currently heading for about 2.5 degrees Celsius of warming.

Climate change is making California wildfires more explosive. Over the past two years, the threat of wildfires has led several big insurance companies to scale back their home insurance business in the state or to stop selling new policies altogether in order to avoid paying billions in damages.

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Transcript :

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

California is suing some of the world's biggest oil and gas companies for allegedly deceiving the public about their role in causing climate change. Michael Copley joins us from NPR's Climate Desk to talk about what's happening. Good morning, Michael.

MICHAEL COPLEY, BYLINE: Morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So this lawsuit - it was filed Friday in California state court. Tell us a bit about what's going on. What is California accusing these companies of?

COPLEY: Yeah, so what California is saying is that executives at some of the biggest oil companies, like Exxon and Chevron, lied to the public about the dangers of fossil fuels and climate change. So the lawsuit says that these companies knew for decades that burning fossil fuels would raise global temperatures and cause the kind of catastrophic impacts we're seeing now, like explosive wildfires, extreme storms. But rather than warn the public, the lawsuit says, these companies put out disinformation - that by doing that, they delayed society from trying to limit global warming.

RASCOE: So states and localities have filed dozens of lawsuits against oil and gas companies making similar accusations. This isn't the first one. So what makes this one stand out?

COPLEY: California's a huge economy, and so they're going to have a lot of resources they can bring to bear in this case. And I think there's a sense that they're going to add muscle to cases brought by other states like Rhode Island and Minnesota, cities like Honolulu and Hoboken. And the feeling is that you could see California's lawsuit usher in more suits from other parts of the country. That's according to Mike Meno. He's a spokesperson for the Center for Climate Integrity. It's a group that works to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their impacts on climate change.

MIKE MENO: This is not going to be the last one of these cases filed, and we can expect more of them to come as the evidence against big oil grows stronger and as similar cases get closer and closer to having their day in court to put these polluters on trial.

COPLEY: You know, I think it's also notable that California's been hit really hard by the impacts of climate change. Rising sea levels threaten a lot of the state's coastline. They've had devastating wildfires in just the past couple of years, what we've seen is insurance companies pulling back from the state - home insurance companies pulling back to avoid billions of dollars in damage. So what California wants is for these companies to pay into a fund to deal with the impacts of climate change.

RASCOE: What are the companies saying about the lawsuit?

COPLEY: So Shell, one of the companies named in the lawsuit, said the courtroom is the wrong place to deal with the issue of climate change - that what we need is government policy and sort of concerted action from across the economy. It's worth noting that the Supreme Court this year allowed some other similar cases to move forward in state courts. We know that the American Petroleum Institute, another defendant in this California case, called the case meritless and politicized. You know, I think critics of the oil and gas industry think it's kind of interesting hearing the industry talk about the need for government policy since the industry is accused of working against government policy to deal with climate change for years and years.

MENO: Frankly, that's just more disinformation from big oil because these cases don't seek to solve climate change or enact climate policies.

COPLEY: That was Mike Meno again from the Center for Climate Integrity. And he says what these cases are about is holding companies accountable for alleged wrongdoing.

RASCOE: So the reality is lawsuits move, you know, pretty slowly, but global temperatures are steadily going up. What are scientists saying about the risks the world is facing from climate change right now?

COPLEY: Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels are the main driver of global warming. Emissions keep going up so temperatures keep rising. What climate scientists have said is that we need to limit warming to about 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid some really catastrophic impacts. We're nowhere close to that. We're headed for about 2.5 degrees Celsius of warming, and the impacts of that warming are becoming more and more visible. You know, this week in Libya, thousands of people died when catastrophic flooding caused dams to break. You know, what we know is that climate change makes heavy rain more common. A hotter atmosphere holds more moisture. So average rainstorms and hurricanes can get a lot more dangerous. And what scientists say is that these impacts are going to keep getting worse as people keep putting more greenhouse gas emissions up into the atmosphere.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Michael Copley. Thank you so much.

COPLEY: Thanks, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.