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Climate lawsuit litigants are relying on dated science, study finds

Climate lawsuit litigants are relying on dated science, study finds
Lawyers are using outdated data, or no data at all, in climate change litigation, which researchers say is lowering the potential success of the lawsuits. File Photo by tlegend/Shutterstock

June 28 (UPI) -- The lawyers litigating climate-related lawsuits aren't keeping up with the science, according to a new survey, hindering their ability to hold governments and corporations accountable.

The new research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, highlights the disconnect between progress in the field of climate science and the legal, economic and political efforts to slow climate change.

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The overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that the evidence of human-caused climate change is iron clad as decades of greenhouse gas emissions have dramatically warmed Earth's climate.

But while the scientific consensus around global warming was reached decades ago, each year, as new studies are completed and published, the impacts of this phenomenon -- stronger storms, prolonged droughts, rapidly melting glaciers -- have become clearer and more certain.

RELATED WMO report: Global temperature could exceed key climate target within 5 years

Unfortunately, according to a new review of climate litigation cases, lawyers aren't utilizing the most-up-to-date science -- science that could aid their lawsuits.

Since 1980, more than 1,500 climate-related lawsuits have been filed all over the world, some of them high profile suits brought against major oil companies like Exxon-Mobil.

To better understand how these cases are being litigated, researchers at the University of Oxford looked at the use of scientific evidence in 73 cases being litigated across 14 different jurisdictions.

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In a majority of the 73 cases, litigants declined to cite scientific evidence quantifying the extent to which climate change was to blame for the climate-related events.

Even fewer litigants used up-to-date scientific evidence in an attempt to connect the defendants' emissions with the plaintiffs' injuries.

In nearly three-quarters of the surveyed cases, litigants failed to present any peer-reviewed scientific evidence. In almost half of the cases, litigants did not attempt to use scientific studies to link climate change with extreme weather events.

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Authors of the latest survey acknowledged that in the past, climate scientists themselves have been wary about linking climate change and extreme weather.

That's no longer the case, however, as more and more studies have demonstrated a strong link between climate change and extreme weather events, including storms, droughts and heatwaves.

"If litigation seeking compensation for losses suffered due to climate change is to have the best chance of success, lawyers must make more effective use of scientific evidence," lead study author Rupert Stuart-Smith said in a press release.

"Climate science can answer questions raised by the courts in past cases and overcome hurdles to the success of these lawsuits," said Stuart-Smith, doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford's Environmental Change Institute.

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Stuart-Smith and his fellow study authors said they hope that lawyers pursuing climate-related litigation will make better use of the scientific evidence linking climate change and extreme weather events, a field known as attribution science.

The successful use of attribution science in the courtroom can pave the way for future successful lawsuits, they said.

"In order to change the fate of the vast majority of climate litigation cases, courts and plaintiffs alike have to realize that science has moved on from ascertaining that climate change is potentially dangerous to providing causal evidence linking emissions to concrete damages," said co-author Friederike Otto, associate director of the Environmental Change Institute.

With policy changes slow to alter the behavior of the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters, some climate activists argue legal challenges can more quickly alter the economic calculus for the oil and gas industry.

"Holding high-emission companies accountable for their contribution to climate change is key to driving systemic change and to protecting those most vulnerable to climate change impacts," said co-author Thom Wetzer. "Climate litigation aimed at generating that accountability is on the rise, but the results have been mixed."

"Our research provides reason for optimism: with rigorous use of scientific evidence, litigators have room to be more effective than they currently are," said Wetzer, founding director of the sustainable law program at Oxford. "It is now up to litigators to translate state-of-the-art science into high-impact legal arguments."

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