[Mark Buchanan] How to Win a Global Warming Lawsuit

[Mark Buchanan] How to Win a Global Warming Lawsuit
The fight against global warming is rapidly taking hold in courtrooms. In recent years, in landmark cases in the Netherlands, Germany and France, courts have agreed that the state and corporations have a duty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and have required that they adopt more aggressive policies. A Dutch court, for example, ordered the government to cut emissions to 25% below 1990s levels, forcing it to go beyond its proposed 17% target.

These decisions mark an encouraging change. Over the decades, plaintiffs have brought — and lost — more than a thousand major cases accusing governments and private companies of causing specific harm through climate emissions.

One reason this dismal record could change is for plaintiffs to present more persuasive cases. But they could do even better. According to a recent study of arguments advanced in 73 recent or ongoing cases, plaintiffs generally do not use up-to-date science capable of linking climate emissions to direct adverse consequences.

“Attribution” – the term scientists use to describe evidence linking human behavior to global warming – is not as simple as it sounds. Proving that some floods or storms are due to climate change, and not just an abnormal normal weather event, means showing that such an event would have been much more unlikely in a world where climate change was not occurring. To do this, scientists must rely on a good statistical understanding of the normal climate system and the weather – if warming did not occur – and make a clear distinction with what is happening now.

Collecting this historical data and building these scientific models has been difficult. But the researchers persisted. In 2018, a summer heat wave in northern Europe resulted in average temperatures more than 5 degrees Celsius higher than the recent historical norm. Detailed studies of this event based on available data and atmospheric modeling ultimately concluded that such an event was about 100 times more likely than it would have been in the absence of climate change. In a realistic statistical sense, climate change caused it and the resulting damage, which included several hundred additional deaths caused by extreme temperatures in Sweden, Finland and Denmark.

The science for establishing such causal links has matured over the past decade through the concerted efforts of groups such as the World Weather Attribution organization, created by scientists who have developed comprehensive methods for determining what events are and are not. not good candidates for a realistic award. It’s unfortunate that, so far, climate activists don’t seem to be following the science.

In their study of recent cases, for example, Rupert Stuart-Smith of Oxford’s Sustainable Law Program and his colleagues found that claimants in almost 75% of cases – usually related to damage caused by extreme temperatures or l sea ​​level rise – made no effort to demonstrate a clear causal link between the damages they suffered and the defendants’ emissions. Instead, the plaintiffs hoped it would be enough if the court accepted the existence of a general link between climate emissions and increased risks of extreme events.

The best alternative, these scholars say, would be to present specific evidence to link particular damages at a time and place to the defendants’ actions. This may seem inherently difficult, as emissions come from many sources, but attribution has developed statistical techniques to reliably estimate the share of damage attributable to individual emitters. And such arguments are no different in spirit from arguments that courts have long accepted in other areas – for example, in cases determining partial liability for the health consequences of tobacco smoke or ‘asbestos. According to these estimates, Exxon Mobil and Chevron each contributed more than 2% to cumulative ocean acidification, with coal and cement producers in China accounting for more than 10%.

More specific arguments could make a big difference. A decade ago, courts that dismissed climate-related lawsuits suggested that legitimate links could never be drawn between defendants’ emissions and plaintiffs’ injuries. This opinion was premature. Science has definitely evolved. Now, in many cases, such links can be made with great confidence.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that legal experts haven’t kept up with the latest scientific advances, which keep getting stronger. If activists and their legal teams start using better science, the legal battles could soon start to swing the other way, in which case the courts could drive real changes in emissions policies.

Mark Buchanan
Mark Buchanan, physicist and science writer, is the author of “Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics”. He wrote this for Bloomberg. — Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)

By Korea Herald ([email protected])

Teresa H. Sadler