New UN report could be a game-changer for climate lawsuits

“The IPCC report should be a sort of rallying call to lawyers.”

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report, released on Monday, contained some of the group’s strongest language yet affirming the link between human activity and global warming. Humans have “unequivocally” warmed the planet, the IPCC report said, making heatwaves, droughts, and wildfires more extreme in the process. While that might seem like a no-brainer to some, it’s a finding that could have big implications for lawsuits seeking to hold polluters accountable for disaster damages.

“The IPCC report should be a sort of rallying call to lawyers,” said Rupert Stuart-Smith, a climate researcher at the University of Oxford, “to ensure that they are making use of the most up-to-date developments in climate science.”

The specific field of science that examines the connection between extreme weather events and human activity is called “climate change attribution.” According to the IPCC, scientists have gotten much better at this over the past decade, and can now more rigorously pin extreme heat, heavy precipitation, dry spells, and hurricanes on big carbon emitters.

For years, plaintiffs around the world have sought to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their contributions to climate change — often seeking compensation for damages like economic losses from floods or wildfires. But these cases have been stymied by a lack of causal evidence. That is, plaintiffs have struggled to prove in the courtroom that they have suffered economic damages due to the activities of the oil and gas companies they are litigating.

Take, for example, the 2008 case of Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp., in which Native Alaskans sued ExxonMobil and 23 other energy giants for damages associated with coastal erosion. The plaintiffs said the erosion had been exacerbated by climate change. But the U.S. Court of Appeals dismissed the villagers’ case, citing a dearth of causal evidence. “It is not plausible to state which emissions — emitted by whom … and at what point in the world — ‘caused’ Plaintiffs’ alleged global-warming related injuries,” the court ruled.