A United States senator is seeking to pass legislation in California that would expose fossil fuel companies to investigations that could hold them accountable for purposely misleading the public over the scientific evidence for climate change. The bill, which will allow prosecutors to start investigating such companies from when they first began denying climate change, will be similar to those that were used to hold tobacco companies accountable after decades of spreading false information on the health benefits of smoking.
Currently, the statute of limitations under California’s Unfair Competition Law limits cases to be brought against companies on environmental issues to within four years. However, if Senator Ben Allen gets his way, the window in which claims can be filed will be extended to 30 years. This would mean that fossil fuel giants such as Exxon, who it is claimed knew about the dangers of climate change as far back as the 1970s, but then deceived their investors and the general public, could be opened up to civil charges.
The new Climate Science Truth & Accountability Act (SB 1161) introduced by Senator Allen states: “Internal industry documents show that many of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies knowingly worked to deceive the public about the realities and risks of climate change for decades – even while the companies factored projected climate change impacts into their own business operations.”
The legislation has been presented on the back of the Exxon case that has also led to investigations of the company by the New York attorney general, which has issued a subpoena on all documents the company hold that mention climate change.
It is claimed that while Exxon’s own scientific research revealed the future impacts of climate change as early as the 1970s, in the 1980s they proceeded to sow doubt about the climate science by stressing uncertainty within the data. This resulted in a highly polarized public, culminating in a debate about the issue where no debate should exist, thus delaying the implementation of restrictions on greenhouse gas and carbon emissions.
The legislation is backed by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the hope that the truth will finally be outed, and those responsible will be prosecuted, showing other companies that there is a cost to such deception. “Keeping the statute limited to only four years undermines the state's ability to hold fossil fuel companies responsible for their unfair and deceptive practices that extend back well beyond four years, as well as the damages and risks that Californians and everyone else must face for centuries to come,” the newly proposed bill concludes.