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Judge Throws Out Historic Climate Liability Cases Brought by Oakland and San Francisco

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Judge Throws Out Historic Climate Liability Cases Brought by Oakland and San Francisco
San Francisco and the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge. Doc Searls / CC BY 2.0

In a blow to the climate liability movement, Federal Judge William Alsup on Monday threw out a trendsetting lawsuit brought by the cities of Oakland and San Francisco against the five biggest fossil-fuel producing companies, The New York Times reported.

The two Bay Area cities were the first major U.S. cities to sue big oil over the costs of adapting to climate change, but other cities and counties around the country, including New York, Boulder and Seattle's King County, have followed their lead for a current total of 11 such lawsuits on the books.


Alsup, of the Federal District Court in San Francisco, stemmed the tide of the movement with his decision, ruling that the courts were not the appropriate place to decide issues relating to climate change.

"The problem deserves a solution on a more vast scale than can be supplied by a district judge or jury in a public nuisance case," Alsup wrote in his opinion, according to The New York Times.

Alsup acknowledged the scientific consensus surrounding human-caused climate change and agreed that it posed a significant risk to the planet, but did not think it was ultimately fair to hold the defendants―Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell―responsible for supplying a global demand for energy that had transformed the modern world.

"Would it really be fair to now ignore our own responsibility in the use of fossil fuels and place the blame for global warming on those who supplied what we demanded? Is it really fair, in light of those benefits, to say that the sale of fossil fuels was unreasonable?" he asked in the statement.

"This is obviously not the ruling we wanted, but this doesn't mean the case is over," San Francisco city attorney spokesperson John Coté told The New York Times. "We're reviewing the order and will decide on our next steps shortly."

Coté added that the case had already been a success in at least one respect: It had led Alsup to order a historic court tutorial in March in which climate science experts testified about the proof for anthropogenic global warming.

"We're pleased that the court recognized that the science of global warming is no longer in dispute," he said. "Our litigation forced a public court proceeding on climate science, and now these companies can no longer deny it is real and valid. Our belief remains that these companies are liable for the harm they've caused."

Chevron was predictably pleased with the results.

"Reliable, affordable energy is not a public nuisance but a public necessity," vice president and general counsel for Chevron R. Hewitt Pate told The New York Times.

Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told The New York Times it was too soon to tell if Alsup's decision would influence judges hearing similar cases around the country.

The cities had filed their suits against the companies using public nuisance law. In previous federal cases concerning climate change, the Supreme Court ruled that the Clean Air Act superseded nuisance law at the federal level and that it was up to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to deal with such complaints.

Oakland and San Francisco had tried to file public nuisance suits at the state level, while the defendants tried to move the cases to federal courts. Alsup decided the two cities' suits should be tried federally, but the federal judge reviewing the climate liability cases brought by Marin County, San Mateo County and Imperial Beach moved them to state courts.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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