Better use of climate science 'could see more big polluters successfully prosecuted'

Poor use of science is jeopardising the success of court cases brought against fossil fuel companies, according to a new report by Oxford University scientists.

More major oil, coal, and gas companies could be held legally responsible for the climate change damages caused by their carbon emissions, say the authors, if the evidence submitted by the litigants used up-to-date climate science.  

The authors assessed 73 lawsuits across 14 jurisdictions, and found that current evidence submitted “lags significantly behind the state-of-the-art in climate science, impeding claims that greenhouse-gas emissions have caused the impacts suffered by plaintiffs”. 

READ MORE: Does the law follow the science when it comes to the climate?

So far, approximately 1,500 climate related lawsuits have been brought around the world, the report says. 

Rupert Stuart-Smith, lead author of the study, said: “In recent weeks, successful lawsuits in the Netherlands, Germany, and elsewhere have seen courts demand countries and companies dramatically strengthen their climate targets. The power of climate litigation is increasingly clear”. 

In May, a Dutch court ruled that energy giant Shell must cut emissions by 45% by 2030, a decision which campaigners said would have major ramifications internationally.

However, this report shows that many climate-related lawsuits do not end in success.

“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”, said Stuart-Smith. He added that climate science can answer questions raised by the courts in past cases and “overcome hurdles to the success of these lawsuits”. 

The report, Filling the evidentiary gap in climate litigation, published in Nature Climate Change, says it is the first global study on the use and interpretation of climate-science evidence in lawsuits.

In particular it calls for the use of attribution science, which allows scientists to calculate how emissions have contributed to specific events like storms, droughts, heatwaves or floods.

A recent paper in Nature directly attributed human caused sea-level rise to the increased economic damages felt in the US east coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 - to the tune of $8.1 billion.  

The authors of the Oxford University  study are calling for this kind of scientific analysis to be combined with data on emissions, so that plaintiffs can potentially quantify the responsibility of individual fossil fuel companies for their losses.

Previous research cited by the report traced the rise in global atmospheric CO2, surface temperature, and sea level to major carbon producers, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and Saudi Aramco.

Professor Thom Wetzer, founding director of the Oxford Sustainable Law Programme, said that the group’s research provided reason for optimism but levelled a challenge at those bringing court cases against big polluters: “With rigorous use of scientific evidence, litigators have room to be more effective than they currently are. It is now up to litigators to translate state-of-the-art science into high-impact legal arguments”.