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Fighting Climate Change Might Have Just Gotten Easier

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A court in The Netherlands has ruled that Royal Dutch Shell must reduce its carbon emissions—and more

Members of the Dutch environmental group MilieuDefensie react to the organization’s victory in a lawsuit against Royal Dutch Shell. Credit: Getty Images
$8 billion of damage when Sandy raged through the region in 2012. This sum doesn’t capture inequitable distribution of economic damage or account for the lives disrupted or tragically lost.

These costs can be further broken down to make direct connections between actions taken by individual companies and subsequent global climate change impacts. Recent advances in climate attribution studies have connected emissions from the extraction and sale of products from major fossil fuel companies to increased surface temperature, sea level and ocean acidification. A quick assessment of these studies suggests that hundreds of millions of dollars in damage during Sandy from sea-level rise can be attributed to the largest fossil fuel companies. These figures are rough, but with further analysis, scientists can attribute a range of more precise damage amounts from climate change to specific companies.

While these damage amounts from Sandy may seem large, it’s important to remember these calculations are from a single storm, in a specific location, in relation to a singular component of climate change. And these rough estimates don’t take into account the major fossil fuel companies’ past and ongoing role in spreading disinformation about climate science and solutions. Even with these limitations and conservative calculations, the cost is still astonishing. Climate change impacts are costly for people across the globe.

As climate change impacts accelerate, communities are increasingly turning to the courts for assistance and redress. There are currently over two dozen cases seeking to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate damage costs and fraud in the United States alone, with three in our home state of Maryland. This growing trend of resorting to litigation to limit climate harms needs to be informed by communities and actionable science, which should include physical and social science. Investing now in scientists and communities working together can save lives and lessen damage in the future.

The recent Netherlands ruling sparks hope that science and the courts are aligning with the international agreement to limit global temperature increase. After two centuries of research on the negative impacts of burning fossil fuels, it’s frankly surprising that this is the first ruling to address the role and responsibility of the fossil fuel industry in climate change. Advances in science, combined with powerful pressure campaigns and community-led organizing, can inform how we do so: making societal decisions about how to limit climate harms and protect people, as well as holding accountable those responsible for climate-related damage. This is a benchmark moment in the long struggle for climate justice through the courts. Recent weeks prove that scientists can crunch the numbers, courts can assess the evidence, and companies can be compelled to do what is necessary to limit the worst effects of climate change.

This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


    L. Delta Merner is the lead for the Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In this role, she provides timely, scientific evidence to support legal cases that hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate-related damage. Delta earned a Ph.D. in geography and environmental systems from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

      Brenda Ekwurzel is a senior climate scientist and the director of climate science for the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Ekwurzel is a co-author of the fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) Volume II. She holds a Ph.D. in isotope geochemistry from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and conducted postdoctoral research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

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