If We Can Attribute Natural Disasters to Climate Change, Who Could Victims Sue For Damages?


photo: Samenwerkende Hulpoganisaties via flickr

Though it's de rigueur to say that any single weather event can't be directly linked to climate change, and it's true, what if we could determine how much of say massive flooding or a 1000-year heat wave were caused by human-caused warming? Could the victims hold anyone responsible and sue for damages? That's the question asked in a recent New Scientist article, and it's one well worth considering. Here's the gist of research being done by Myles Allen and colleagues at the University of Oxford, and taken up at the Attribution of Climate-Related Events workshop:

In 2004, Allen and his colleagues showed to a high level of confidence that human greenhouse gas emissions had at least doubled the risk of the European heatwave of 2003 occurring.

The basic idea in producing such a figure is straightforward. Run thousands of simulations of the climate as it is and as it would have been without human influences, then compare the number of times a given event occurs in each scenario. In 2004, technological limitations made it impossible to run simulations for long enough to reproduce the 2003 heatwave, so the analysis involved making certain assumptions.

"With the tools we have today we can do much better," says Allen.

The article goes on to rightly point out, through the voice of Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, what you're all no doubt thinking: "Given that there is a global warming component to an event, is there any way in which you can sue somebody for it? Who do you sue? It's going to be messy."

Indeed when victims of hurricane Katrina sued a number of companies in 2005 for helping create the environmental conditions in the Gulf of Mexico it went back and forth in the courts. Initially the suit was thrown out on the grounds that the event couldn't be linked back to the companies directly; then that ruling was overturned; and overturned again.

As tempting as it is to want to assign direct blame and recoup damages of some sort, when it comes to climate change I'm not sure blame can be assigned in monetary terms to any specific entity.

Say it could be determined that the recent Pakistani flooding was definitively caused 25% by human-caused warming--the rest is a combination of natural variability, poor civic infrastructure, and both legal and illegal deforestation upstream. After that you assess the damage from the disaster and assign an monetary amount--likely well short of the actual suffering caused, but it's something.

What do you do with the 25% figure? Who's actually responsible for that? Do you break down a payout, an amount due by all the nations of the world, based on percentage of total greenhouse gas emissions--China and the United States each responsible for a large chunk, followed by the EU, India, Japan, Australia, Indonesia and so on down the line? Those percentages discounted by the amount that Pakistan itself contributed to global emissions.

Where does it go from there? At the national level you could figure out how much Corporation X contributed to the national emissions total and therefore how much they contributed to the event.

But when it comes down to it, with all the effort it would require to reasonably and efficiently develop such a system of compensation for climate change caused natural disasters, wouldn't that effort be better spent actually reducing emissions in the first place so that such events became less likely?

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More on Global Climate Change:
Big Floods in Northern England Won't Be Freak Events by 2080
At Least 20% of Pakistan is Underwater (Video)
Illegal Logging by Pakistan's TImber Mafia Increased Flooding Devastation
Moscow Death Rate Doubles From Worst Heat Wave in 1000 Years

Tags: Global Climate Change | Global Warming Solutions | Natural Disasters

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