Smoke and Fumes

The Legal and Evidentiary Basis for Holding Big Oil Accountable for the Climate Crisis
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Establishing that major carbon producers are causally contributing to climate impacts and climate harms is only the first step in accountability. The question remains: can we hold them responsible?

Under multiple theories of law, these companies could be held liable if they knew or should have known of climate risks linked to their products, but failed to take action to avoid or reduce those risks — either by eliminating them or by properly warning consumers, regulators, and the public about them.

Company documents, scientific studies, and other evidence show that fossil fuel companies, especially petroleum companies, knew about the dangers of climate change — and their products’ role in exacerbating it — much earlier than previously understood. This documentary evidence also reveals that major carbon producers repeatedly misled the public about climate science in an effort to stymie regulation and the development of alternative technologies.


Product details
Date of Publication
November 2017
Center for International Environmental Law
Number of Pages
Language of publication
Table of contents

Executive Summary


Part 1- The Legal Basis for Accountability: Fundamental Elements of Responsibility under Tort, Civil Liability, and Human Rights Law

  • Climate Litigation: Causation, Attribution, and the Scientific Case Against Major Carbon Producers
  • The Fundamental Elements of Responsibility: Notice of Risk and the Opportunity to Avoid or Reduce Risk
  • Corporate Responsibility for Human Rights Violations Arising from Climate Change

Part 2 - The Evidentiary Basis for Accountability: Notice, Opportunity, and Failure to Act

  • Oil on Notice: Evidence of Early Industry Awareness of Climate Risks
  • Documentary Evidence Demonstrates Oil Industry was on Notice of Potential Climate Risks by 1957
  • The Petroleum Industry Engaged in Coordinated Research and Communications on Air Pollution Issues from the 1940s Onward
  • The Industry Undertook Coordinated Research into Many Subjects Relevant to the Causes and Impacts of Climate Change
  • The Petroleum Industry was Unequivocally Warned of Climate Change Due Primarily to the Combustion of Fossil Fuels By 1968
  • From 1977 to 1982 Exxon Scientists Repeatedly Confirm the Science of Climate Change
  • As Early as the 1970s and No Later than the 1980s, Climate Change Projections Were Being Used in Business and Operational Planning
  • In the 1990s, Even as it Acknowledged Climate Realities Internally, the Oil Industry Intensified its Public Campaigns Against Climate Science
  • The Oil Industry Continued to Fund and Promote Climate Misinformation and to Oppose Climate Mitigation Actions Throughout the 2000s into the Current Decade
  • A Systemic Problem
  • The Petroleum Industry Was Researching Technologies that Could Have Been Used to Mitigate or Avoid Climate Change
  • Summary of Industry Knowledge of and Action on Climate Change
  • Key Findings
  • Beyond Exxon and Beyond the US: The Expanding Investigations into Climate Denial


  • I - Investor-Owned Carbon Majors, Ranked by Cumulative Emissions Contribution
  • II - A Note on Sources
  • III - A Note on Industries and Companies Addressed in this Synthesis


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