Will New Scientific Breakthroughs Pave the Way for More Climate-Related Lawsuits?
By Elliott Negin
Look to the courts for redress—with a major assist from science.
Using sophisticated computer analyses, scientists can now determine what percentage of an extreme weather event can be attributed to climate change. This emerging field of "climate attribution" science offers courts a powerful new tool for apportioning responsibility in cases brought by victims of extreme weather events—Hurricane Harvey comes to mind—or other climate-induced damages, such as sea level rise, against municipalities and private real estate developers for failing to protect them from foreseeable damages.
Likewise, companies responsible for producing and marketing fossil fuels—BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and the like—may find themselves in legal crosshairs thanks to a first-of-its-kind study definitively linking global climate changes to carbon emissions directly associated with them.
Published Thursday in the journal Climatic Change, the study calculated the amount of sea level rise and global temperature increase resulting from carbon dioxide and methane emissions from products marketed by the largest coal, gas and oil producers and cement manufacturers as well as their extraction and production processes.
"We've known for a long time that fossil fuels are the largest contributor to climate change," said Brenda Ekwurzel, lead author and climate science director at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). "What's new here is that we've verified just how much specific companies' products have caused the Earth to warm and the seas to rise."
Ekwurzel's study builds on a groundbreaking study one of her co-authors, geographer Richard Heede, published in Climatic Change in 2014. Closely tracking the oil, gas and coal extracted since the Industrial Revolution, Heede found that just 90 private and state-owned companies are responsible for two-thirds of human-caused carbon emissions since then. What's more, Heede's research showed that more than half of these carbon emissions occurred since 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen sounded the alarm about climate change in well-publicized congressional testimony.
Ekwurzel et al.'s study quantified climate change impacts of each company's carbon and methane emissions during two time periods: from 1880 to 2010 and from 1980 to 2010, because internal industry documents show fossil fuel companies were well aware of the threat posed by global warming at least 25 years ago.
According to the new study, emissions traced to the 90 largest carbon producers contributed approximately 57 percent of the upsurge in atmospheric carbon dioxide, nearly 50 percent of the increase in global average temperatures, and about 30 percent of global sea level rise since 1880. Meanwhile, emissions attributed to just the 50 investor-owned carbon producers, including BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Peabody and Shell, were responsible for roughly 16 percent of the global average temperature increase and around 11 percent of the global sea level rise from 1880 to 2010. Between 1980 and 2010, the same 50 companies contributed approximately 10 percent of the global average temperature increase and about 4 percent of the sea level rise.
State-owned companies also have played a significant role. Emissions linked to 31 majority state-owned companies, including Coal India, Russia's Gazprom, Kuwait Petroleum, Mexico's Pemex, Petroleos de Venezuela, National Iranian Oil Company and Saudi Aramco, were responsible for about 15 percent of the global temperature increase and approximately 7 percent of sea level rise from 1880 to 2010.
"Until a decade or two ago, no corporation could be held accountable for the consequences of their products' emissions because we simply didn't know enough about what their impacts were," explained Myles Allen, a study co-author and professor of geosystem science at the University of Oxford in England. "Our study provides a framework for linking fossil fuel companies' product-related emissions to a range of impacts, including increases in ocean acidification and deaths caused by heat waves, wildfires, and other extreme weather-related events. We hope the results of this study will inform the debate over how best to hold major carbon producers accountable for their contributions to the problem."
As climate change impacts worsen and become more expensive to address, the question of financial responsibility will become more urgent. In New York City alone, local officials estimate that it will cost more than $19 billion to adapt to climate change. Globally, adaptation cost projections are equally astronomical. The U.N. Environment Programme calculates that developing countries will require $140 billion to $300 billion per year in 2030 and a whopping $280 billion to $500 billion per year by 2050.
"Fossil fuel companies could have taken any number of steps to address climate change, such as investing in clean energy or carbon capture and storage," said Peter Frumhoff, a study co-author and director of science and policy at UCS. "Instead, many of them spent millions of dollars to try to deceive the public about climate science and block sensible limits on carbon emissions. Taxpayers alone, especially those living in vulnerable coastal communities, shouldn't have to bear all the costs of these companies' irresponsible decisions."
Pending lawsuits by three California coastal communities could benefit immediately from Ekwurzel et al.'s findings. San Mateo and Marin counties and Imperial Beach, a city in San Diego County, filed complaints in July against 37 major coal, oil and gas companies, including BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell, claiming higher sea levels triggered by their products is putting billions of dollars of property at risk. The study also may embolden other municipalities and states to take similar legal action in the absence of leadership from the Trump administration and Congress. It then will be up to the courts to do what too many of our elected officials have so far failed to do: acknowledge scientific reality.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.