LANSING — Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette recently signed onto a court filing that questions the scientific consensus about the causes of climate change.
The brief in an ongoing federal lawsuit involving ExxonMobil’s statements about climate change contends there’s disagreement about the “degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind,” and labels climate change an “unsettled area of science.”
“The debate concerning the scope and sources of climate change (is) still raging in scientific and public circles,” according to the Aug. 10 amicus brief from Schuette and 11 other Republican state attorneys general and governors seeking to advance the energy giant's arguments.
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The brief comes as independent scientific studies continue to conclude earth’s atmosphere and oceans are steadily warming, weather is growing more severe and sea rise is accelerating as snow and ice melts. International bodies of scientists for years have said “human influence on the climate system is clear” and “evident in most regions of the globe.”
“In the climate science community, there’s no longer any serious debate that humans are changing the climate and are causing the vast majority of warming and other associated changes through the emission of greenhouse gases — primarily through the burning of fossil fuels,” Jonathan Overpeck, an interdisciplinary climate scientist and dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, told Bridge Magazine.
The filing in the U.S. Court of Appeals was written by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and seeks to quash a probe into whether ExxonMobil broke laws by publicly downplaying the climate risks of burning oil and gas. The filing backs Exxon's lawsuit to block a demand by attorneys general in Massachusetts and New York for decades of internal records related to the company’s understanding of climate change.
Schuette is the Republican nominee for governor. Andrea Bitely, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, did not directly respond to questions from Bridge Magazine about whether Schuette agrees with the filing’s claims on climate change.
“The Attorney General signed on to the amicus brief you referenced for one reason: to preserve the right to free speech, on the topic of climate change or any other,” she told Bridge in a statement.
“Attorney General Schuette also believes that we all have a responsibility to protect our environment and reduce carbon emissions that have a negative impact on our environment, whether that be here in Michigan or globally.”
Bitely did not answer questions about whether that includes climate risks. But Schuette told Bridge through campaign spokesman John Sellek in an email:
"I understand the significance of global climate challenges and the responsibility that both developed countries and new, emerging economies have to lower [carbon dioxide] emissions. And, etched in the DNA of every Michiganian is the recognition of wise stewardship and conservation of our natural resources."
The email touted Schuette's actions on several environmental issues unrelated to carbon dioxide emissions.
"I have fought to protect the environment in my opposition to Great Lakes Water diversion, opposition to changing ballast water discharge standards, fighting to stop Asian carp migration to the Great Lakes and encouragement of the building of a utility corridor/tunnel to replace the aging Line 5 pipeline," Schuette said.
The Democratic attorneys general are investigating whether ExxonMobil violated consumer protection and securities laws by downplaying climate risks — to the public and shareholders — even as internal scientists warned company executives of the consequences of burning fossil fuels and published research about the topic.
The investigation piggybacks on a series of reports by the Los Angeles Times, Inside Climate News and other outlets revealing inconsistencies dating to the 1970s in the ways the ExxonMobil discussed climate change inside and outside its Texas headquarters.
The company has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. ExxonMobil now states on its website: “The risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action. Increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere are having a warming effect. There is a broad scientific and policy consensus that action must be taken to further quantify and assess the risks.”
In their brief supporting the company, Schuette and his colleagues seek to dismiss the probe on free speech grounds.
“This is not a case about the scientific validity of climate change,” the brief states. “It’s about a fundamental guarantee of our Republic — the ability to have a viewpoint on a topic of public debate and not fear government retaliation for expressing it.”
“The New York and Massachusetts Attorneys General falsely presume that the scientific debate about climate change is settled, along with the related and equally important debate on how to respond to what science has found.” the brief states.
The Republican governors and attorneys general — including Schuette — made an identical assertion about climate science being unsettled in an April brief in the case, which has not previously drawn attention in Michigan.
This isn’t the first time Schuette has waded into a legal battle concerning climate change.
Breaking with Gov. Rick Snyder, he also joined other states in fighting Obama’s “Clean Power Plan” — regulations to speed states’ shift from coal-fired power in an effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. He argued the regulations were too onerous and would increase electricity prices.
The U.S. Supreme Court stayed those rules in 2016, and President Donald Trump’s administration has since scrapped the effort.