New Study Identifies Key Research Needed to Advance Climate Litigation Cases

Published Dec 14, 2022

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A rapidly growing number of climate lawsuits worldwide are helping people hold public and private sector actors accountable for their role in accelerating climate change, and its devastating impacts on the environment, public health, and the economy. A new study published in the American Geophysical Union’s Earth’s Future journal identifies key gaps in litigation-relevant research, including analysis related to climate change detection and attribution, climate disinformation and greenhouse gas mitigation obligations.

“Climate litigation has proven to be a promising mechanism for holding bad actors in the climate crisis accountable,” said Delta Merner, Lead Scientist, Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “But that progress would not be possible without attribution research that undeniably ties government and corporate defendants to climate change. It's critical in this moment that scientists across a diverse array of disciplines understand the vital role their work can play in advancing these groundbreaking cases.”

The study found courts and litigants could benefit specifically from research that bridges the gap between source and impact attribution that links individual countries, major carbon producers and emitters to specific physical impacts such as temperature increases, sea level rise, ocean acidification and extreme weather. It also identified the need for more research quantifying the financial impacts of climate damages, and to expand the geographic scope of research to include more representation for the Global South.

“Climate change attribution research has already played an important role in court decisions establishing government obligations to control greenhouse gas emissions and protect citizens from the harmful effects of climate change,” said Jessica Wentz, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. “It will likely play a key role in the recent wave of lawsuits aimed at establishing legal obligations for corporate actors as well.”

In 2004, only 11 climate-change related cases were filed globally. Since then, climate litigation has dramatically increased with more than 120 cases filed around the world each year between 2016-2019. Across the United States and its territories, dozens of states and municipalities have filed lawsuits seeking to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate damages and/or deceiving the public about the harms their products cause. Last year a Dutch court brought new hope to addressing climate change through litigation when it ruled that Royal Dutch Shell must cut carbon emissions from both its operations and the oil and gas products the company sells.

The Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union of Concerned Scientists serves as a dedicated forum where researchers and practitioners can convene to help accelerate the publication and application of litigation-relevant research. To date, nearly three-quarters of all climate litigation cases across the United States have cited research from the Union of Concerned Scientists.