Jun 28, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Study: Climate lawsuits aren't relying on the latest science

Aerial photo showing low levels of a lake, drained by drought.
In this aerial view, the tall bleached "bathtub ring" is visible on the rocky banks of Lake Powell on June 24 in Page, Ariz. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Lawsuits filed against fossil fuel companies and governments for causing global warming have met a decidedly mixed fate, with most getting dismissed for failing to prove a causal link between emitters' actions and harm done to the plaintiffs. However, that could soon change, a new study finds.

Why it matters: Courts are an important venue for cities, states and citizens’ groups seeking carbon-cutting mandates — especially as governments fail to slash greenhouse gases fast enough to avoid potentially devastating effects.

Driving the news: There have been a few recent successes in court cases, such as the move by a court in the Netherlands to require Royal Dutch Shell to make deeper cuts to its emissions.

Now a new study published Monday in Nature Climate Change that examined 73 court cases examined in 14 jurisdictions finds that plaintiffs aren't using the latest and most compelling scientific evidence in court.

  • Such evidence, researchers argue in the study, could help plaintiffs prove that a particular fossil fuel company or government has caused them harm via global warming.

What they found: The study finds that ongoing improvements in climate "attribution" science could help plaintiffs meet evidentiary tests for showing causation. That's the research field that explores the extent to which human-caused climate change is altering the likelihood and severity of extreme weather events, such as heat waves and floods.

  • The researchers, from European institutions and Harvard Law School, found that limitations in the scientific evidence presented to courtrooms may have contributed to their failure to prove a causal link between an entity's emissions and harm suffered.
  • The researchers found that those arguing climate cases are simply not taking advantage of the latest climate science findings. For example, the study says it's now possible to break down the attribution of climate impacts to individual greenhouse gas emitters, such as a single oil and gas company.
  • "Attribution science is a fundamental source of evidence for informing and substantiating causal claims about climate change impacts," the study states.
  • The study concludes that courts have wrongly found that it is too difficult to determine how an individual emitter has caused particular climate impacts.

What they're saying: "There seems to be a considerable lag between scientific understanding and that filtering through into society. A much larger lag than I had expected," Friederike Otto, a climate scientist who researchers extreme event attribution at the University of Oxford and study co-author, told Axios.

  • "For me, as scientists, that means we really need to explain more what we do, how we do it, and what that means in terms of what we know and what we don’t know for losses from climate change," she said.
  • "In fact, recent months have shown that the courts can really catalyze some change. This will only be possible though if the evidence presented is as strong as it can be."

What's we're watching: Whether this study results in any shifts in litigation strategies in the U.S. or abroad, which could raise the level of risk for business as usual at oil and gas firms and national governments alike.

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