How a revolution in climate science is putting big oil back on trial

(MotherJones, 16 Oct 2019) Until recently, the costs of climate change have been “entirely externalized and foisted on taxpayer,” says Columbia University climate law director Michael Burger, while polluting industries have remained largely unscathed.

The outer banks of the Carolinas and the Bahamas are picking up the pieces after the battering from Hurricane Dorian—the first direct hit of this year’s extreme weather season. Already the damages for 2019 are well above the 40-year average for billion-dollar events, and the price tag for damages will rise dramatically over the next decades. At the current rate of warming, the US could see more than 10 percent of its annual GDP wiped out by the end of the century from the extreme heat and flooding. 

So, who is going to pay for all that? 

Until recently, the costs of climate change have been “entirely externalized and foisted on taxpayer,” says Columbia University climate law director Michael Burger, while polluting industries have remained largely unscathed. There are now hundreds of active lawsuits by kids, business, and cities against fossil fuel companies and against governments that have long known the risks of climate change but chose inaction. Only a few of the global lawsuits have been successful so far, and some 21 liability cases active in the US are even more slow-moving, as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decides if and how to let them proceed.

Together all these cases could wind up changing the calculus of who pays for the impacts from climate change. Their secret weapon is a cutting edge area of climate science. It’s known as attribution science and has already transformed the way we discuss disasters like Hurricane Dorian by getting much more specific about how much we can blame fossil fuels and the companies that produce them for the extent of the damage.

“The more certain the science becomes that specific kinds of extreme events are caused by climate change,” Burger says, “the more likely it is that people can go to the court to pay for the costs from these events and the damage that results from them.” But there is one lingering issue, he adds: “Whether any of them succeed in holding companies accountable is very much an open question.”

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MotherJones, 16 Oct 2019: How a revolution in climate science is putting big oil back on trial