Scientists’ ever more robust ability to attribute extreme weather events to climate change, and therefore to ascribe fault for those events, is giving rise to a whole new branch of climate litigation. But it remains to be seen how winnable those lawsuits will be, writes Wired magazine.
“The ultimate challenge for the science of event attribution is to estimate how much climate change has affected an individual event’s magnitude or probability of occurrence,” the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine wrote in a report. But scientists are getting more confident and assertive about attributing specific events to climate change.
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“We tend to be conservative in how we communicate. Just as we’re finally getting onto the same page and the media starts saying what we’re saying, we say, ‘Oh, scrap that, we have something else we know,’” said climate scientist Stephanie Herring of the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Information. “This fall, we kind of had to say, ‘Remember how we told you we could never say that? Well, we’re saying that’.”
Wired traces the history of attribution science back to a January, 2003 op ed by Oxford climate scientist Myles Allen who, “with the waters of the flooding River Thames literally lapping at his front door,” wondered whether scientists might one day solve what he called the “attribution problem” by firmly linking a specific event like a flooding Thames to an overheating Earth.
A year later, Allen and two colleagues published the world’s first climate event attribution paper, on the 2003 heat wave which devastated Europe a few months after the UK’s inundation.
It was another 15 years, Wired notes, before “an annual special edition of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society dedicated to event attribution included three papers asserting that without human-caused climate change, three recent meteorological anomalies simply would not have happened: 2016’s global heat wave, the 2016 Asia heat event, and a ‘blob’ of weirdly warm ocean off Alaska.”
Not all researchers are happy with the added sense of certainty, however. “I have been told by folks who specialize in communication that we need to be less equivocal,” said MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel. “I don’t like that, because first of all it borders on being dishonest, and second it makes us sitting ducks for a sufficiently intelligent person who wants to show these changes aren’t happening.”
Scientists more at ease with connecting the dots with hard numbers, like Herring, agree that attribution science can falter where there are just too many variables.
“Hurricanes, we’ve really been working hard to get those error bars down and increase the confidence,” she told Wired. “Tornadoes, we have no confidence. We’ve never seen an attribution paper on tornadoes, and I don’t expect to see one in the future.”
“It’s most likely that attribution science, given its state of development, will inform disputes relative to adaptation issues,” said Lindene Patton, an attorney at Earth and Water Law Group. What remains to be seen is “whether courts could hold actual carbon emitters accountable for climate change-related damages.” An earlier article in Wired about an ongoing lawsuit launched by San Francisco and Oakland against Chevron, BP, and Exxon Mobil, suggests scientists can indeed become “sitting ducks” for opposing lawyers.
So far, no one can really say how the science of event attribution will play out in court. “We don’t know what will happen, but no one thought tobacco litigation would succeed, and that completely changed public health policy,” said ClientEarth attorney Sophie Marjanac.