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Filling the evidentiary gap in climate litigation

Abstract

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.

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Data availability

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

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Acknowledgements

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.

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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.

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Correspondence to Rupert F. Stuart-Smith.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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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.

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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). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-021-01086-7

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