On Saturday Dec 5, in the Paris suburb of Montreuil, away from the COP 21 main venue in Le Bourget, a mock trial of Exxon took place. Organized by several environmental organizations, it offered, in a theatrical form, a well-scripted trial led by two rock star style environmentalists and authors Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, in front of celebrity judges. About 250 people sympathetic to the environmental movement heard incriminatory evidence of the American energy giant’s alleged climate crimes.
The basis for this trial of the world’s largest private oil explorer are allegations based on recently uncovered papers indicating that Exxon has lied to the public about climate change since the 1970s. Investigative journalists from Inside Climate News and the Los Angele Times have recently revealed that, around that date, Exxon’s own top-notch scientists were well aware that fossil fuels were causing the warming of the Earth. The Texas based company was accused in this mock trial of having covered up their own science results that they knew were correct while actively discrediting the scientific consensus that was building at the time and has continued to become even more firm do so over the last few decades.
At the start of the mock trial, the prosecutors explained that Exxon was on trial for its potential climate crimes. “Crimes that extend beyond the pollution they are putting in our atmosphere; crimes against indigenous people; crimes against people of color; crimes against people who are already feeling impacts of climate change.”
One by one, witnesses were asked to testify. Some were citizens of countries vulnerable to devastating impacts of climate change that are already occurring, such as rising sea levels and thinning ice sheets. Others witnesses were climate scientists and energy analysts.
The witnesses’ statements were very personal, bringing to the audience first-person accounts of what they many people may have read about from the comfort of their homes and offices. The climate scientist testifying in the trial, a glaciologist working for more than a decade at monitoring the evolution of the Arctic ice conditions, admitted that hearing for the first time the testimony of a woman living in the Marshal Islands really affected him. The story of the young woman from a Sami family of reindeer herders, dressed in colorful herder clothes, was very touching. She explained how, with the warming, the reindeers were unable to migrate from their summer to their winter pastures, lakes and rivers not yet being frozen or being covered with ice too thin to allow them to cross safely, many young ones dying because they were unable to follow their mothers across the flowing river. Or how, due to the more rapid freeze-thaw cycle nowadays, a thin layer of ice builds over the snow-covered pastures and prevent the reindeers from foraging. This young woman called herself a “climate child”.
Other witnesses testified of water raging through their homes during King Tides (the normally infrequent but extreme tides that occur more often now), and their family burial grounds becoming covered with water, leading to the loss of their culture and identity.
A Nigerian activist talked about damages done by Exxon to the inhabitants of the Niger Delta without their benefiting from the huge oil reserves being exploited. With a wink of support from Nigerian politicians, Exxon would profit while Nigerians were suffering serious health damage.
Klein devoted a series of questions to one witness to untangling the connections between Exxon (and other oil companies), climate skeptics, think tanks (such as the Competitive Enterprise and the Heartland institute) and climate-denying US government officials such as Senator Inhofe. Through her line of questioning, she demonstrated that the product being sold by this group was “doubt”, as it was in the case of the tobacco companies (as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have so convincingly demonstrated in their book, Merchants of Doubt). In the case of doubt about the science, the window of uncertainty has been closing rapidly, as the correctness of mainstream climate science has become more and more apparent and persuasive. It was a deliberate move by some US politicians to find ways of keeping this window of uncertainty open, and they did and still do that.
The two prosecutors, helped by a real-life lawyer with experience in this type of case, meticulously asked questions to prove that, had Exxon informed the public and not hid its scientific findings 25 years ago, the present climate impacts would have been more limited and the life of the vulnerable less affected. They also spent significant time communicating the feelings of people living in the exposed areas, their outlook on their future, their desperation and their fears.
In his closing statement, McKibben said this was an unforgivable crime, possibly one of the greatest corporate crimes ever committed on our planet. Klein concluded with: “It is Exxon’s crime that it believes money trumps life… there is no price that can be placed on the Marshall Islands, on Arctic cultures, and lives of our loved ones and what we are able to pass onto our children.”
“The burden of proof now rests squarely on this corporation to somehow prove that the documents and memos [uncovered] don’t show what prima facie, they seemed to demonstrate, namely a profound disregard for the safety of the planet and its people,” said Sarsgaard one of the judges.
“We render this verdict unanimously on 5th December of 2015, the hottest year yet measured on our Earth.”
While a group of motivated environmentalists can stage a mock trial without a defendant present, in reality the task is far more difficult. In order to build a case they must be able to demonstrate that a law has been broken. Collusion between private enterprise, dishonest scientists, shady think tanks and corrupt politicians to hold back climate action may not be enough to convict a corporation, even if slowing down climate action means that hundreds of thousands of people are affected.
Nevertheless, some are calling for the U.S. Justice Department to probe the matter under federal racketeering statutes. In any case, Exxon is already under investigation by the State of New York for lying to its shareholders, or at least not disclosing the truth about possible risks to the value of their long-term investments. If the investigation shows that Exxon made misleading statements about climate science, statements that it knew from its own in-house research were scientifically not credible, that action alone could amount to some form of fraud.
Might this mock trial be a preview of trials to come?