Science Paves Way for Climate Lawsuits

 

 

This could be PRICELESS! Should have happened quite a while ago…

 

ASW

Science Paves Way for Climate Lawsuits

David Adam and Afua Hirsch  The Guardian, Tuesday December 9 2008

 

People affected by worsening storms, heatwaves and floods could soon  

be able to sue the oil and power companies they blame for global  

warming, a leading climate expert has said.

 

Myles Allen, a physicist at Oxford University, said a breakthrough  

that allows scientists to judge the role man-made climate change  

played in extreme weather events could see a rush to the courts over  

the next decade.

 

He said: “We are starting to get to the point that when an adverse  

weather event occurs we can quantify how much more likely it was made  

by human activity. And people adversely affected by climate change  

today are in a position to document and quantify their losses. This is  

going to be hugely important.”

 

Allen’s team has used the new technique to work out whether global  

warming worsened the UK floods in autumn 2000, which inundated 10,000  

properties, disrupted power supplies and led to train services being  

cancelled, motorways closed and 11,000 people evacuated from their  

homes-at a total cost of £1bn.

 

He would not comment on the results before publication, but said  

people affected by floods could “potentially” use a positive finding  

to begin legal action.

 

The technique involves running two computer models to simulate the  

conditions that led to extreme weather events. One model includes  

human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases, the second assumes the  

industrial revolution never happened and that carbon levels in the  

atmosphere have not increased over the last century. Comparing the  

results pins down the impact of man-made global warming. “As the  

science has evolved this is now possible, it’s just a question of  

computing power,” he said.

 

Allen and his colleagues previously demonstrated that man-made warming  

at least doubled the risk of heatwaves such as the 2003 event that  

killed 27,000 people across Europe. No legal action resulted, but  

Allen said that was partly because most of the deaths were in France,  

where the legal system makes such cases difficult.

 

“We can work out whether climate change has loaded the dice and made  

extreme weather more likely. And once the risk is doubled, then  

lawyers get interested,” he said.

 

Peter Roderick, director of the Climate Justice programme, said the  

most likely route for seeking damages would be tort cases, which deal  

with civil wrongs. Several have been attempted by US states against  

power and car companies only to be rejected by the courts.

 

Roderick said developing countries such as Nepal could also sue for  

compensation over damage caused by global warming. “As the issue of  

damages gets worse and worse, the chances of this happening will get  

greater and greater,” he said. “I hope it happens.”

 

Lawyers say it is only a matter of time before class actions are  

brought. However, Stephen Tromans, an environmental law barrister,  

said establishing causation would be one of the main difficulties. “It  

is one thing to be able to link levels of greenhouse gases with a  

specific event causing damage but, even assuming you can do that,  

quite another to establish causation against a particular company or  

industrial sector.”

 

There are legal precedents for making exceptions to normal rules of  

causation. One example is the decision of the House of Lords on  

mesothelioma, where past employers can be liable for having  

contributed to the overall exposure, though the harm cannot be  

scientifically attributed to any specific period of employment.

 

“In that case an exception was made to the normal rules on causation  

in order to prevent an injustice that would otherwise have occurred,”  

Tromans said.

 

There may also be grounds for a case on the basis that firms have  

tried to misinform the public-as in US cases against tobacco firms-

about the effects of their business.

 

Owen Lomas, head of environmental law at City firm Allen & Overy,  

said: “If you look at the extent to which certain major companies in  

the US are accused of having funded disinformation to cast doubt on  

the link between man-made emissions and global warming, that could  

open the way to litigation.”

 

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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