Big Oil wants you to believe that, because climate change was mentioned in children’s cartoons and a Batman movie in the 1990s, companies like Chevron hold no responsibilities for the current climate crisis.
That’s the gist of a brief filed by Chevron in Hawaii’s First Circuit Court, first reported Wednesday by E&E News. The massive brief was filed as part of a lawsuit brought against the oil giant by the city and county of Honolulu, which charges a number of oil companies for their role in contributing to sea level rise by spreading climate denial and misinformation about their product. In the brief, Chevron asks the court to dismiss the suit, which has been inching closer to a trial than many other similar cases brought by cities and states against oil companies.
“[The] Plaintiffs’ Complaint tries to construct a narrative that oil and gas companies had some unique knowledge about climate science and withheld it or misrepresented it in some way that impacted policy responses and consumer choices. That narrative is false,” the brief reads. “...Attempting to ‘fix blame’ on a handful of energy companies for a widely discussed phenomenon that is inherent to modern industrial society and the economic foundations of modern life is fundamentally misleading and improper and, more importantly, does nothing to address the problem of climate change.” The brief then goes out to construct an exhaustive list of the “cultural commentary” on climate change since the 19th century, as a way of trying to support this claim.
Some of the pop culture references contained in the brief are... pretty wild. There’s a cultural reference here for everyone. Did you like reading Calvin and Hobbes? There was a 1987 strip about climate change, so it’s not Chevron’s fault that the world kept using oil after that. A fan of the show Cheers? One character mentioned global warming in a joke in an episode in 1991, so don’t be mad at Chevron. Did you go see Prince of Tides, Batman Returns, and/or The American President when they were in theaters in the 90s? Those movies contained at least one reference to climate change, so clearly the world was paying attention to scientists’ warnings. Were you a 90s kid who watched The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Beverly Hills, 90210, Frasier, Alf, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Captain Planet, and/or Power Rangers? All those shows had a mention of global warming, so you really should have known better.
It’s not just cartoons and TV shows: The brief provides an extensive and chronological list of news articles from the New York Times, Time Magazine, the Atlantic, and other major news outlets, including media in Hawai’i, on coverage of climate science and reports on links between fossil fuel use and climate change. Chevron’s argument here is that, because pop culture and major media discussed climate change, there’s no way to claim that major oil companies successfully misled the public about the impact of their product.
“This filing highlights decades of well-publicized facts and information underlining the potential causes of global climate change, including a connection with fossil fuel use by consumers and industries,” Theodore Boutrous, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP representing Chevron in the lawsuit, told E&E. “This voluminous record debunks plaintiffs’ allegations by showing that members of the public — including media and government officials — had ample data with which to make informed policy and personal decisions.” Okay!
This line of reasoning is, pardon my French, extremely bullshit. The fact that scientific information was available and infiltrating popular media and culture has nothing to do with the behind-the-scenes campaign oil companies and their allies were running to discount that science. Just because a disinformation campaign didn’t prevent mentions of climate change in culture does not mean that said disinformation campaign didn’t exist—and wasn’t successful. A few lines in Cheers and Fraser don’t negate Chevron’s years of propping up climate-denying politicians who were able to block legislative action for decades. An episode about climate change in The West Wing doesn’t cancel out the slew of misleading ads Chevron and its interest groups and allies, like the American Petroleum Institute, paid to run in high-profile media for decades. A few Time Magazine covers correctly reporting the science on climate change in the 1980s doesn’t mean that Chevron’s current misinformation campaigns aren’t incredibly misleading.
Also: Prince of Tides? The Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte movie that moms love—really? Does Chevron really want us to believe that a throwaway line from Danny DeVito’s Penguin is enough to absolve the company of years of purposefully funding climate deniers who blocked the legislative action we desperate needed? That’s as ludicrous as Chevron’s latest clean, green marketing.