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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

Mapped: Minnesota's major weather-related disasters

Expand chart
Data: FEMA; Map: Jared Whalen/Axios

Minnesota is so far better off than most of the country when it comes to weathering climate-related disasters, but we're not immune from the effects of increased greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

Why it matters: Some regions of the U.S. are safer from climate-fueled extreme weather events than others, but no region will be untouched, Axios' Ben German wrote in a recent "Deep Dive" on climate change.

Zoom out: The map above shows major disasters declared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the past two decades — a snapshot that ranges from hurricanes and severe storms to wildfires and drought.

Zoom in: Below, check out a county-by-county look at the weather disasters over the past two decades here in Minnesota.

What to watch: Will our relatively mild threat of extreme weather compared to other parts of the country make us a hot spot people looking to move from harder-hit regions?

  • Duluth, for example, is seeing some anecdotal evidence that "climate migrants" are moving to the area to escape more extreme weather elsewhere, MPR News reports.
Oct 5, 2021 - Science

Nobel Prize in physics awarded for climate change research

The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi for reseach on climate change. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

Scientists Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi received the Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday for their work in predicting global warming and the understanding of complex physical systems.

Why it matters: These researchers helped describe and predict the long-term behavior of complex systems, like the Earth's climate, which are characterized by randomness and disorder and are difficult to understand.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Oct 4, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Democrats sense now or never moment on climate legislation

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Democrats and advocates pushing for big climate investments in reconciliation legislation will likely need to scale down their ambitions even as they emphasize the global stakes of the fluid Capitol Hill talks.

The big picture: Democrats and the White House face the tricky task of crafting a social spending and clean energy plan that will be significantly smaller than progressives have envisioned.