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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.

Go deeper

Northwest "heat dome" signals global warming's march

Residents gather in a public cooling shelter set up at the Oregon Convention Center during a heat wave in Portland on June 26, 2021. (Maranie Staab/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The dangerous heat wave enveloping the Pacific Northwest is shattering weather records by such large margins that it is making even climate scientists uneasy.

Why it matters: Infrastructure, including heating and cooling, is built according to expectations of a "normal" climate. Human-caused climate change is quickly redefining that normal, while dramatically raising the likelihood of events that simply have no precedent.

Jun 26, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Climate change in the New Washington

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A special Axios AM Deep Dive into the New Washington and what it means for climate change.

"Historic" Northwest heat wave shatters records, poses health risks

A boy cools off in a riverfront water fountain during a heatwave in Portland, Ore., on June 26. Photo: Maranie Staab/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A stifling "heat dome" is parked over the Pacific Northwest, bringing unprecedented heat to at least 25 million in the United States, and more in Canada. Temperatures are forecast to hit an apex Sunday and Monday in many areas.

Why it matters: Extreme heat threatens lives, ranking as the nation's top weather-related killer annually. In addition, extreme heat events such as this one are a clear manifestation of human-caused climate change, with numerous studies linking such events to the long-term increase in global average temperatures.