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Climate Change Judge Wanted to Know What Caused the Ice Age


Judge William Alsup is like a kid who loves science class, only his class is a federal courtroom and his teachers are the world’s sharpest minds on climate change.

He screened Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” the 2006 documentary about the way global warming affects the environment, before Wednesday’s hearing and spent time watching National Geographic programs on volcanoes and the Great Barrier Reef to prepare. He even dressed the part for a presentation by attorneys for Chevron Corp. and leading scientists studying the issue:

“I wore my science tie today,” Alsup said from the bench, showing off the galaxy gleaming on the fabric around his neck. “Look, there’s the sun. There’s the earth. I hope someone noticed.”

The five-hour tutorial was meant to serve as an informational foundation for litigation in which San Francisco and Oakland seek to hold five of the world’s biggest energy companies financially liable for the cost of protecting local residents from rising sea levels. The session also highlighted just how engaged Alsup is with the the case.

The judge, known for learning a computer programming language to prepare for an intellectual property trial, wanted to understand, among other things:

  • What caused the Ice Age?
  • How did the Ice Age end?
  • Has Antarctica ever not been covered with ice?

“How much water would be in the ocean if Greenland and Antarctica completely melted?” Alsup asked Don Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois who led the authorship of a crucial chapter in a 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

Chevron’s lawyer, Theodore Boutrous, was decidedly less absorbed by the variations in weather conditions over time and geological shifts. He acknowledged that climate change is “a global problem that requires global action,” but stopped short of the probing curiosity shown by the judge.

“It’s not the production and extraction that’s caused global warming,” Boutrous said, “it’s the way people are living their lives, it’s the way society is developing.”