Catalyst Fall 2017
First Principles

Climate Change Goes to Court

Fisherman's Wharf San Francisco

Fisherman’s Wharf, in San Francisco, California. San Francisco County is one of several communities in the state suing fossil fuel companies for climate-related damages to public property.
Photos: m01229/Creative Commons (Flickr)

By Ken Kimmell

UCS President Ken Kimmell

Courts are forced to take on problems when the legislative and executive branches’ failure to act creates a crisis. In the United States today, the federal government has abdicated leadership on the central challenge of our time: global climate change. Given this dereliction of duty, will courts now step in to fill the void? 

Several recently filed lawsuits—including ones by San Francisco and Oakland, California—suggest the answer could be yes. And the Union of Concerned Scientists is playing a supporting role in helping to answer one of the most difficult questions courts will face as climate litigation unfolds, namely: how to apportion liability for a harm that has so many sources? This is particularly relevant as irrefutable evidence shows that the fossil fuel industry has been aware for decades that their products contribute to climate change, and yet has worked to actively deceive the public.  

A newly published paper by UCS scientists Brenda Ekwurzel and Peter Frumhoff, among others, attempts to answer liability questions with a robust scientific model that determines the portion of climate impacts such as temperature increases and sea level rise that can be traced back to the major fossil fuel companies (for more, see “Ideas in Action”).

From civil rights and same-sex marriage to the regulation of tobacco, we’ve seen how powerful the courts can be in hastening widespread societal changes. So we should take some encouragement that lawyers and climate scientists are joining forces in court. It’s too early to gauge the impact of the climate lawsuits now under way. But these cases are already sparking an overdue debate about the legal responsibility of the fossil fuel industry. With help from UCS, the rapidly emerging field of climate attribution science could help courts answer questions they are likely to face as they adjudicate these issues.

Ken Kimmell Photo: Richard Howard