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  • Writer's pictureTom Butler

A Gavel of Sanity on Climate Change

Photo (NASA): Early sea-ice breakup in Beaufort Sea, Arctic

Some 230 billion tons of ice melts into the ocean from glaciers, ice caps, and mountaintops annually, according to the University of Colorado, Boulder, raising sea levels and threatening coastal cities all over the world. For those who have ever driven a car, flew in a plane or even gathered around a campfire to toast marshmallows, don’t we all have some shared role and responsibility for this?

Last week, a federal judge in the Northern District of California declared that Congress and the President − and not himself or a local San Francisco or Oakland jury − were best suited to determine blame for how fossil fuels and the companies that sell them contribute to climate change. The court asked, can we “ignore our own responsibility in the use of fossil fuels and place the blame on those who supplied what we demanded?”

There are simply too many variables to assign blame.

The litigation with potentially tens, if not hundreds of billions-of-dollar price tags attached, sought to hold big oil liable for destructive environmental changes, with New York and other cities launching similar litigation. Some years back I worked on the media for the earliest environmental litigation involving the fuel additive MTBE, which involved some of the very same players.

The premise: Chevron, Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, BP and Royal Dutch Shell knew all along that fossil fuels posed serious risks to the environment. The litigants wanted big oil to pay for sea walls and other new costly municipal infrastructure.

These cases are unlike the successful litigation against tobacco companies, which filled government coffers. Given that the air we breathe is impacted by so many sources, what percent of blame can be assigned to one oil firm? How about coal of yesteryear, or the industrial revolutions in the US, Europe, India or China? There are simply too many variables to assign blame.

Accepting “vast scientific consensus” of the impact of fossil fuels upon climate change and rising seas, the judge said, "The problem deserves a solution on a more vast scale than can be supplied by a district judge or jury in a public nuisance case,” despite wide ranging testimony covering climate change research, carbon dioxide’s role as greenhouse gas, melting ice caps, rising sea levels and extreme weather.

Climate change is a problem indeed, but thankfully the judge in this case was no showboat seeking the worldwide stage that he could have commanded for months on end.

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