Trial lawyers are using a relatively new area of climate research as ammunition to sue oil companies on behalf of cities allegedly being harmed by man-made global warming.
Climate lawsuits have been brought against oil companies in the past, but now trial lawyers are using “attribution” studies to sue oil companies for billions of dollars.
“All of these earlier cases didn’t have the benefit of current attribution science, in terms of drawing the link between emissions and impacts, and emissions during a particular period, and attribution to particular corporations,” Vic Sher, a partner at Sher Edling LLP, told The Verge.
“We have all that information now,” Sher said.
Sher Edling is handling climate lawsuits for six California cities. The firm’s legal complaints utilize attribution studies to link alleged effects of global warming to damages, including sea level rise.
For example, the complaint for Richmond, Calif., cites a 2016 attribution study published in the journal Nature claiming man-made global warming is responsible for at least 70 percent of the sea level rise between 1970 and 2000.
“Sea level in California, including Richmond, will continue to rise significantly and dangerously through at least 2150,” reads Sher Edling’s complaint filed in January.
Sher Edling’s lawsuits allege sea level and other “climate impacts” has caused, and will further cause, billions of dollars worth of damage to California cities. New York City, Oakland and San Francisco are also filing suit against oil companies.
New York City’s lawsuit is demanding oil companies compensate them for past and future climate damages. The city already has a $20 billion “climate resiliency” to build up infrastructure.
With stakes this high, the science better be air tight, but is it?
Attribution is a growing area of study in climate science that asks how much more likely or severe did global warming make a particular weather event. It’s being seized upon by lawyers and politicians. Sher Edling and other law firms handling climate cases see attribution studies as a key to legal victory.
Studies usually try to link weather and warming in a couple of ways — one is by comparing the current climate to a hypothetical climate with no greenhouse gas emissions.
Other studies run model simulations through 2100 to see how future warming might affect weather events. Scientists then take projections from 2100 and draw a linear line back to today’s weather.
Both methods are fraught with uncertainties and biases that make attribution controversial among scientists.
A 2016 assessment from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine found that while attribution science is advancing the “results remain subject to substantial uncertainty, with greater levels of uncertainty for events that are not directly temperature related.”
“The conclusions drawn also depend, in general, on choices made when selecting the events, framing the questions asked about the role of climate change, designing the modeling setup, and selecting statistical tools to quantify uncertainty,” reads the Acadmies’ assessment.
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