On Tuesday, a New York state judge dismissed a lawsuit against Exxon Mobil alleging that the company had misled investors about the potential effects of climate change regulation on its business. The decision ends a lengthy investigation by the New York attorney general’s office that attracted attention from climate change activists hoping to hold the oil-industry giant accountable for its role in driving the global consumption of fossil fuels.
But it is unlikely to end scrutiny of whether Exxon bears legal responsibility for climate change impacts, or to settle looming questions about whether the company misled the public about climate change.
At issue is an apparent disjunct between the company’s business operations and the knowledge generated by its sophisticated scientific and analytical teams. (The company today employs more than 2,200 Ph.D. scientists). In 2015, InsideClimate News and The Los Angeles Times released in-depth investigations documenting that Exxon leaders had been aware of the possibility of a climate crisis since at least the late 1970s — years before most members of the public — and had conducted extensive research into the effects of carbon dioxide well into the 1980s. Then, starting in the late ’80s, the reporters found, the company scaled back that research and instead began financing efforts to cast doubt on the reliability of climate science writ large — even as it used those same climate change projections to inform its own business decisions.
Amid these kinds of strategies, the New York state attorney general’s office saw the potential for fraud, filing its lawsuit against the company in 2018. The suit, based on several years of investigations, focused on whether Exxon had presented investors with a different set of projections about future climate regulations than it had used internally. The case involved high-profile witnesses, including former Exxon chief executive and Trump administration Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. But in a sharp rebuke to the plaintiffs, Judge Barry Ostrager ruled this week that New York’s attorneys had “failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that ExxonMobil made any material misrepresentations.”
The legal challenges aren’t over. More than a dozen cities and states are in the process of suing the company for knowingly committing a “public nuisance” by contributing to climate change. And, in October, the state of Massachusetts sued Exxon under the state’s Consumer Protection Act, arguing that the company had misled the public about the effects of its products. “It’s well past time,” Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey said in a statement, “for Exxon to tell the truth and be held accountable for the misrepresentations it has made to every investor, at every gas station, on every television, and online.”
Exxon has dismissed the Massachusetts suit as “politically motivated.”
Also in the news:
• Last year, police in California announced that they had used a public DNA database called GEDMatch to track down the infamous Golden State Killer, a serial murderer and rapist wanted for dozens of crimes committed throughout the 1970s and 80s. On Monday, GEDMatch announced that it was being acquired by Verogen, a forensic genomics firm that works with police, eliciting mixed reactions from users. “I suspect this will be the last straw for all the genealogists who don’t want to share with law enforcement,” said Debbie Kennett, a genealogist and honorary research associate at University College London, in an interview with Wired. Other genealogists seemed hopeful that the takeover may lead to better protection from investigative overreach or hacking attempts. Verogen says that it will maintain users’ privacy settings regarding whether they want to opt in or out of police searches. (Wired)
• A group of doctors and health care providers are demanding that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) grant them access to a migrant detention center in San Ysidro, California, so that they may administer the flu vaccine to detained children. On Monday, the group of medical professionals and supporters, holding signs with captions like “No more flu deaths,” stationed themselves at the driveway of the detention facility and said they would not leave until the CBP granted them approval to enter the facility. Three children in federal immigration custody died from the flu between October 2018 and September 2019. The CBP did not directly respond to the demonstrations, but did answer a November 5 letter sent to the Department of Homeland Security requesting access to administer vaccines, responding, in part, that “as a law enforcement agency, and due to the short-term nature of CBP holding and other logistical challenges, operating a vaccine program is not feasible.” Six people, including at least two doctors were arrested this Tuesday for blocking the entrance to the CBP’s San Diego Sector headquarters in Chula Vista, while protesting for access to the San Ysidro facility. (San Diego Union-Tribune, Los Angeles Times)
• A deadly volcanic eruption on White Island in New Zealand on Monday killed at least 14 visitors and injured dozens more, prompting researchers to question whether tourists should have been allowed on at all. Last month, GNS Science, the research body that monitors the country’s volcanic activity, updated the Volcanic Alert to Level 2, indicating that an eruption was possible, but not necessarily imminent. The eruption occurred while 47 people were touring the crater. On Friday, rescuers headed to the island to recover the bodies of eight missing people who were presumed dead — a risky operation, as conditions are volatile and high gas pressures indicate that further explosions are likely. Two people are still missing. Calling Monday’s eruption “the worst of all possible scenarios,” Australian volcanologist Raymond Cas told Nature that tourists at the crater likely had zero visibility while trying to escape sprays of hot crater water and debris as large as 3 feet wide. Both local police and the country’s health and safety regulator continue to investigate the disaster. (Nature)
• Harvard geneticist George Church made headlines this week when he told 60 Minutes that he is involved with a company that’s building a dating app that screens users’ DNA to eliminate couplings that would result in a child with an inherited disease. Reactions to the announcement were swift and mostly negative, with many critics pointing out the troubling possibility that such technology could be used for eugenics — the extermination through discriminatory breeding of individuals judged to have “undesirable” characteristics. Many critics invoked Church’s choice to accept donations from now-deceased pro-eugenics sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. While calls for caution in designing and deploying such an app are certainly warranted, many couples already undergo pre-conception genetic screening to avoid heritable diseases. The nonprofit Dor Yeshorim, for instance, which works with Orthodox Jewish communities, has long drawn both acclaim and criticism from pundits for using genetic screening to prevent romantic matches between people who are carriers of genes for deadly genetic disorders common to Jews, such as Tay–Sachs disease. “If you do [testing] after you have already fallen in love, it’s mostly bad news by that point,” Church told MIT Technology Review. “A quarter of kids will be diseased. If you can go back in time before they fell in love, you get a much more positive message.” (CBS News, MIT Technology Review)
• The melting rate of the vast Greenland Ice Sheet has accelerated to such a degree over the last decade that researchers say it has fallen in line with worst-case predictions for sea-level rise. In an early manuscript published this week in the journal Nature, an international team of scientists said that the conclusion was based on more than two-dozen satellite imaging studies of ice loss across the island. The team of almost 90 researchers — conducting a project known as the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-Comparison Exercise (IMBIE) — said the ice loss from Greenland now averages some 254 billion tons a year, compared to an average of 33 billion tons in the 1990s. Greenland represents the second largest ice mass after the continent of Antarctica, and its accelerating melting rate is already contributing to coastal flooding around the planet, the scientists said. In the worst case scenario, if Greenland continues shedding ice at this rate, it could theoretically push sea level rise up by another 20 feet over the next millennium, they warn. (The Washington Post)
• Tucked into Congress’s latest $738-billion defense bill is a set of provisions that will escalate U.S. efforts to protect federally funded research from theft and exploitation by foreign countries. Those security concerns bubbled to the surface last year, when the National Institutes of Health announced that it was investigating roughly a half-dozen NIH-funded researchers who had failed to properly disclose foreign ties. Since then, more than 130 researchers have come under scrutiny for their relationships with foreign countries — primarily China. The new legislation, expected to pass Congress as early as this week, will establish two new government bodies aimed at addressing the problem: a White House group that will coordinate federal responses across government agencies, and a group at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that will bring together members of academia, industry, and government to develop new policy ideas. Although the new legislation generally enjoys broad support from academics, some are questioning the wisdom of a provision that requires the national intelligence director to produce an annual report identifying “sensitive research,” arguing that the provision could lead to complications and confusion. (Science)
• And finally: Babylon Health, a London-based technology startup, seems poised for success. Since early 2018, it has quintupled its workforce to roughly 1,500 employees, its valuation exceeds $2 billion, and its AI-driven symptom checker — designed to streamline patient diagnosis and reduce resource waste in the health care industry by offering patients a quick, automated symptom evaluation — has been used 1.7 million times by people in Europe, Canada, Southeast Asia, and Saudi Arabia. Babylon is now eyeing the U.S. market, but the question among many experts is whether it all works as advertised. Not a single peer-reviewed, randomized control study has been conducted to verify whether Babylon’s suite of products deliver on their promises, reporter Jeremy Hsu notes in Undark this week, and while the company says that it “meets or exceeds regulations in each country where its technology is used” — and that it is now enlisting researchers to study its wares for efficacy — critics remain skeptical. “They have managed to be commissioned by the [UK’s National Health Service] to do this job without ever having to test the product on real patients and without any independent scrutiny, and yet this seems to be OK for regulators,” one source tells Hsu. “I think it’s staggering.” (Undark)
“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff and interns.