The Law and Science of Climate Change Attribution
Posted: 12 Oct 2017
Date Written: October 2017
In recent years, there has been a marked increase in the number of lawsuits seeking to hold governments and private actors accountable for failure to take action on climate change. Climate change attribution science – the ability to detect environmental changes and attribute these to increases in greenhouse gas emissions – plays a central role in many of these lawsuits. Attribution science is rapidly evolving, both in regards to attributing extreme events to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions to particular actors – and so too is its role in the courtroom and in policymaking. Armed with a growing body of evidence linking increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations to specific harmful impacts, plaintiffs are pursuing more ambitious claims against governments and emitters for their contribution to or failure to take action on climate change.
This article will examine how attribution science is used in litigation and in policymaking, and the extent to which current research can or cannot support various types of climate litigation. Part I will provide a general overview of the current status of attribution science with respect to both slow- and sudden-onset events. Part II will describe the role that attribution science has played in recent litigation as well as policy-making and planning activities, focusing primarily on examples from the United States but also drawing on international examples. Part III will discuss future directions in the law and science of climate change attribution, addressing questions such as how attribution science can better support policy-making, planning and litigation; how plaintiffs can best utilize attribution science in lawsuits against government and private defendants; and how courts can respond to the realities and limitations of climate attribution science.
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