Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Article
  • Published:

Filling the evidentiary gap in climate litigation


Lawsuits concerning the impacts of climate change make causal claims about the effect of defendants’ greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on plaintiffs and have proliferated around the world. Plaintiffs have sought, inter alia, compensation for climate-related losses and to compel governments to reduce their GHG emissions. So far, most of these claims have been unsuccessful. Here we assess the scientific and legal bases for establishing causation and evaluate judicial treatment of scientific evidence in 73 lawsuits. We find that the evidence submitted and referenced in these cases lags considerably behind the state of the art in climate science, impeding causation claims. We conclude that greater appreciation and exploitation of existing methodologies in attribution science could address obstacles to causation and improve the prospects of litigation as a route to compensation for losses, regulatory action and emission reductions by defendants seeking to limit legal liability.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Similar content being viewed by others

Data availability

Case documents were sourced primarily from the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School’s Climate Change Litigation database ( Where relevant case documents were unavailable on this database, they were sourced from individual courts’ public databases or from Westlaw.


  1. Setzer, J. & Byrnes, R. Global Trends in Climate Change Litigation: 2020 Snapshot (Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, 2020);

  2. Toussaint, P. Loss and damage and climate litigation: the case for greater interlinkage. Rev. Eur. Comp. Int. Environ. Law (2020).

  3. Marjanac, S. & Patton, L. Extreme weather event attribution science and climate change litigation: an essential step in the causal chain? J. Energy Nat. Resour. Law 36, 265–298 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. McCormick, S. et al. Strategies in and outcomes of climate change litigation in the United States. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 829–833 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Minnerop, P. & Otto, F. E. L. Climate change and causation: joining law and climate science on the basis of formal logic. Buffalo J. Environ. Law 27, 49–86 (2020).

    Google Scholar 

  6. Hannart, A., Pearl, J., Otto, F. E. L., Naveau, P. & Ghil, M. Causal counterfactual theory for the attribution of weather and climate-related events. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 97, 99–110 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Peel, J. & Osofsky, H. M. A rights turn in climate change litigation? Transnatl Environ. Law 7, 37–67 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Burger, M., Horton, R. M. & Wentz, J. The law and science of climate change attribution. Columbia J. Environ. Law 45, 57–241 (2020).

    Google Scholar 

  9. Lee, M. The sources and challenges of norm generation in tort law. Eur. J. Risk Regul. 9, 34–47 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. van Oldenborgh, G. J. et al. Attribution of extreme rainfall from Hurricane Harvey, August 2017. Environ. Res. Lett. 12, 124009 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Cowan, T., Undorf, S., Hegerl, G. C., Harrington, L. J. & Otto, F. E. L. Present-day greenhouse gases could cause more frequent and longer Dust Bowl heatwaves. Nat. Clim. Change 10, 505–510 (2020).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Vautard, R. et al. Human contribution to the record-breaking June and July 2019 heatwaves in western Europe. Environ. Res. Lett. 15, 094077 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Schaller, N. et al. Human influence on climate in the 2014 southern England winter floods and their impacts. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 627–634 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Stuart-Smith, R. F., Roe, G. H., Li, S. & Allen, M. R. Increased outburst flood hazard from Lake Palcacocha due to human-induced glacier retreat. Nat. Geosci. 14, 85–90 (2021).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Hegerl, G. C. et al. Climate change detection and attribution: beyond mean temperature signals. J. Clim. 19, 5058–5077 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Harrington, L. J. & Otto, F. E. L. Adapting attribution science to the climate extremes of tomorrow. Environ. Res. Lett. 13, 123006 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Otto, F. E. L. et al. Toward an inventory of the impacts of human-induced climate change. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 101, E1972–E1979 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Otto, F. E. L., Massey, N., Van Oldenborgh, G. J., Jones, R. G. & Allen, M. R. Reconciling two approaches to attribution of the 2010 Russian heat wave. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L04702 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Philip, S. et al. Attribution analysis of the Ethiopian drought of 2015. J. Clim. 31, 2465–2486 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Allen, M. R. et al. Scientific challenges in the attribution of harm to human influence on climate. Univ. PA Law Rev. 155, 1353–1400 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  21. Marjanac, S., Patton, L. & Thornton, J. Acts of God, human influence and litigation. Nat. Geosci. 10, 616–619 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Sacchi et al. v. Argentina et al. Communication to the Committee on the Rights of the Child (23 September 2019).

  23. Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action Inc. v. Environment Protection Authority [2020] NSWLEC 152.

  24. In re Greenpeace Southeast Asia and Others No. CHRNI-2016-0001 (19 September 2019).

  25. Otto, F. E. L. Attribution of weather and climate events. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 42, 627–646 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. van Oldenborgh, G. J. et al. Extreme heat in India and anthropogenic climate change. Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci. 18, 365–381 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Patricola, C. M. & Wehner, M. F. Anthropogenic influences on major tropical cyclone events. Nature 563, 339–346 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  28. Otto, F. E. L. et al. Anthropogenic influence on the drivers of the Western Cape drought 2015–2017. Environ. Res. Lett. 13, 124010 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Oppenheimer, M. et al. in IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (eds. Pörtner, H.-O. et al.) 321–446 (IPCC, 2019).

  30. Ward, P. J., Marfai, M. A., Yulianto, F., Hizbaron, D. R. & Aerts, J. C. J. H. Coastal inundation and damage exposure estimation: a case study for Jakarta. Nat. Hazards 56, 899–916 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Sagredo, E. A., Rupper, S. & Lowell, T. V. Sensitivities of the equilibrium line altitude to temperature and precipitation changes along the Andes. Quat. Res. 81, 355–366 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. City of Oakland v. BP p.l.c. No. C 17-06011 WHA (N.D. Cal. 27 July 2018).

  33. Lliuya v. RWE AG District Court of Essen Judgment of 15 December 2016—2 O 285/15.

  34. Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp. 663 F. Supp. 2d 863, 879–80 (N.D. Cal. 2009).

  35. Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc. 839 F. Supp. 2d 849 (S.D. Miss. 2012).

  36. Connecticut v. American Electric Power Company Inc. 582 F.3d 309 (2d Cir. 2009).

  37. Smith v. Fonterra Co-operative Group Ltd [2020] NZHC 419.

  38. California v. General Motors Corp. No. C06-05755 MJJ, WL 2726871 (N.D. Cal. 2007).

  39. Board of County Commissioners of Boulder County v. Suncor Energy (USA), Inc. 405 F. Supp. 3d 947 (D.C. 2019).

  40. Rhode Island v. Chevron Corp. 393 F. Supp. 3d 142 (D.R.I. 2019).

  41. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore v. BP p.l.c. 952 F.3d 452 (4th Cir. 2020).

  42. Otto, F. E. L., Skeie, R. B., Fuglestvedt, J. S., Berntsen, T. & Allen, M. R. Assigning historic responsibility for extreme weather events. Nat. Clim. Change 7, 757–759 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Licker, R. et al. Attributing ocean acidification to major carbon producers. Environ. Res. Lett. 14, 124060 (2019).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  44. Ekwurzel, B. et al. The rise in global atmospheric CO2, surface temperature, and sea level from emissions traced to major carbon producers. Climatic Change 144, 579–590 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Nauels, A. et al. Attributing long-term sea-level rise to Paris Agreement emission pledges. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 116, 23487–23492 (2019).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  46. Illinois Farmers Insurance Co. v. Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago No. 2014CH06608 (Ill. Cir. Ct. 2014).

  47. Sinnok et al. v. State of Alaska et al. No. 3AN-17-09910 CI (Alaska Super. Ct. 2018).

  48. Skeie, R. B. et al. Perspective has a strong effect on the calculation of historical contributions to global warming. Environ. Res. Lett. 12, 024022 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Clarke, B. J., E. L. Otto, F. & Jones, R. G. Inventories of extreme weather events and impacts: implications for loss and damage from and adaptation to climate extremes. Clim. Risk Manag. 32, 100285 (2021).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Ebi, K. L. et al. Using detection and attribution to quantify how climate change is affecting health. Health Aff. 39, 2168–2174 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Banda, M. L. Climate Science in the Courts: A Review of U.S. and International Judicial Pronouncements (Environmental Law Institute, 2020);

  52. Fisher, E., Scotford, E. & Barritt, E. The legally disruptive nature of climate change. Mod. Law Rev. 80, 173–201 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We are grateful to P. Guzik for research assistance and to C.-F. Schleussner for valuable comments on the manuscript. We gratefully acknowledge support from the Foundation for International Law for the Environment; R.F.S.-S. acknowledges support from the Natural Environment Research Council grant NE/S007474/1, Climate Analytics and the Oxford Martin Programme on the Post-Carbon Transition.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



All authors planned the analyses that R.F.S.-S., A.I.S. and G.L. performed. All authors contributed to the interpretation of the results and to writing the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Rupert F. Stuart-Smith.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Sabrina McCormick, Lindene Patton and Joana Setzer for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary discussion and Tables 1 and 2.

Reporting Summary

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Stuart-Smith, R.F., Otto, F.E.L., Saad, A.I. et al. Filling the evidentiary gap in climate litigation. Nat. Clim. Chang. 11, 651–655 (2021).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing