Friederike Otto hadn’t really thought much about the legal world when she answered the phone one day in 2018. On the other end of the line was Petra Minnerop, a scholar of international law at the University of Durham, UK, who was exploring how the legal system might help to save the planet.
Minnerop had developed an interest in climate litigation — efforts to hold governments and companies legally responsible for contributing to global warming. Following the success of several climate lawsuits, she was seeking to get involved and thought Otto’s research might help. Otto, a climate modeller at the University of Oxford, UK, is one of the world’s leaders in attribution science — a field that has developed tools to assess how much human activities drive extreme weather events, including the heatwaves, fires and floods that have ravaged parts of the globe this year. In their telephone call, the pair realized that they had similar aims and they set about thinking how science and environmental law might trigger more action to limit climate change. […]
A crucial piece of evidence in the Shell case was a set of expert reports on fossil-fuel economics, filed by the Dutch climate-action group Milieudefensie. During the case, Shell’s lawyers had argued that if the company were to reduce its production of oil and gas, other firms would increase theirs, so that global production would remain the same. Milieudefensie asked Peter Erickson, the climate policy programme director at the Stockholm Environment Institute in Seattle, Washington, to respond to that substitution argument. The court agreed with Erickson that a reduction by Shell would not result in other firms making up the entire difference.
Other science relevant to climate lawsuits includes studies about how climate change causes health problems; work that tracks environmental damage using satellite observations; and analyses of how financial flows from one country can increase fossil-fuel pollution in others.
“Too many environmental permits are given by local officials without adequately considering climate,” says Erickson. “I’m happy for my scholarship and science to be used where it is helpful. But it needs many more experts summarizing for courts the science in a clear and strong way.”