Lawyers and scientists met in London to discuss climate litigation, the challenges it poses for both disciplines, and how they could work together. ClientEarth and Oxford University hosted the seminar at SCI London. ClientEarth lawyer Gillian Lobo introduced the evening as “a blind date between scientists and lawyers”.
The seminar built on an article published by James Thornton, Sophie Marjanac and Lindene Patton in Nature Geoscience called ‘Acts of God, human influence and litigation’. It aimed to introduce lawyers to the work of climate scientists, and to start a dialogue between lawyers and scientists working on extreme weather event attribution. Better understanding of each other’s work will allow us to meet the challenges climate change poses for all of us. Speakers included:
- Dr Friederike Otto, Deputy Director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford;
- Leigh-Ann Mulcahy QC, of Fountain Court Chambers;
- Dr Claire McIvor, Senior Lecturer at Birmingham Law School; and
- Lindene Patton, US Attorney and Partner at Earth and Water Group, Washington DC.
Reading newspapers and watching the news, it is clear that we are witnessing increasingly frequent and extreme weather events across the world – heat waves, flooding hurricanes, typhoons and wildfires. Some of these we hear about only fleetingly, others dominate our news for days. Many such events, but not all, are reported to have a climate change link.
Event attribution science is leading to better predictions of the expected severity of certain types of weather-related natural disasters. Such a shift in our understanding of extreme events could have implications for climate change litigation.
Climate change poses both physical risks to assets and operations (including supply chains) from extreme weather events, sea level rise and loss of natural capital. It also poses liability risks for harms caused by climate change.
We are already seeing climate litigation being brought in many jurisdictions. These include the more conventional challenges like judicial review and professional negligence claims. There are also the more unconventional claims based on public nuisance, negligence and public trust doctrine that are weaving their way through the courts.
Key takeaways from the evening included:
- Event attribution science attempts to understand how climate change ‘loads the dice’ of expected weather patterns, although results can only be expressed in terms of probability;
- English tort law has adapted the traditional deterministic ‘but for’ test for causation in certain medical and occupational negligence claims, although this has been controversial; and
- Better understanding of the predictability of extreme events could have legal implications for decision-makers with a duty to manage foreseeable harm and plan for the future.