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In collaboration with partners, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is connecting scientific experts, legal scholars, and practitioners working at the intersection of science and climate litigation.
How does science inform climate litigation?
The science is clear: emissions of heat-trapping gases, especially from the burning of fossil fuels, are driving global climate change. Scientists across a range of disciplines are helping to inform societal decisions about how to limit the effects of climate change, protect people from climate impacts, and hold accountable those responsible for climate-related damages.
As climate change impacts accelerate and powerful interests continue to stand in the way of science-based climate policy, communities on the frontlines are increasingly turning to the courts. Litigation may be an important tool to hold governments and businesses accountable for actions and inactions that have contributed to climate change’s advance.
Climate litigation, informed by science, may help those affected take action against responsible parties to limit climate harms.
Governments across the globe face a growing number of lawsuits seeking to compel them to protect the rights of people, future generations, and the environment from disruptive climate change.
Fossil fuel companies also face numerous climate lawsuits, in the United States and other countries, for consumer and investor fraud, deception, and the climate damage that communities and other businesses are suffering—among other reasons—because companies extracted and marketed oil, gas, and coal while knowing the harm that would result from the use of these products.
How could climate litigation advance equity and justice?
Communities in the Global South, which are least responsible for climate change yet often hardest hit by it, are at the forefront of efforts to seek access to climate justice through the courts. For example, following a groundbreaking investigation, the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines announced that major investor-owned coal, oil, and gas corporations could be found legally and morally liable for climate-related human rights violations—and that evidence may exist to hold them accountable under civil and criminal laws.
The strong connection between human rights and environmental justice has been established through strategic work by communities of color across the globe. In the United States, environmental hazards litigation grew from the civil rights movement.
Litigation by Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other marginalized communities to prevent human rights violations and hold corporations and governments accountable for toxic pollution and other abuses could yield important lessons for climate litigation.
The negative impact of some industry policies and practices on people and communities has a history in the courts. Lawsuits against the opioid, lead, and tobacco industries illustrate the role of scientific research in establishing that corporate actions and misconduct caused harm. Tobacco litigation has brought to light evidence of how people of color and low-income communities are targeted and disproportionately affected.
What is the Science Hub?
The Science Hub for Climate Litigation works to build greater capacity within the scientific community to conduct and communicate legally relevant research. In collaboration with partners, UCS is fostering dialogue and a community of practice among scientific experts, legal scholars, and practitioners working at the nexus of science and climate litigation.
The Science Hub for Climate Litigation also works to increase access to legally relevant research that can equip the justice system to make decisions informed by the most up-to-date evidence possible.
Specifically, UCS′s Science Hub for Climate Litigation seeks to:
- catalyze legally relevant scientific research;
- expand the community of scientists and legal experts working to inform climate litigation;
- make robust litigation-relevant science widely available and accessible to legal scholars and practitioners, local officials, affected communities and other interested parties; and
- connect legal teams with experts in relevant technical fields.
Litigation-relevant research comes from a broad range of disciplines and includes evidence from the lived experience of communities. Key disciplines include extreme event and source attribution science (which attributes global changes to emissions traced to individual fossil fuel companies), and social science research into reducing risks.
UCS is at the forefront of informing climate litigation with independent science and timely research. See more information on UCS-led science.
Social science is critical to assessing responsibility for current and projected climate damages. Scientists and other experts at UCS have worked for years to document deception campaigns designed and funded by the fossil fuel industry to deliberately sow confusion about climate science and block climate action. Along with scientific analysis, ethical considerations must also inform societal judgments of responsibility for climate change harms and understanding where the public stands on corporate accountability measures.
Additional research and resources
- Climate Attribution Database
- The rise in global atmospheric CO2, surface temperature, and sea level from emissions traced to major carbon producers
- Attributing ocean acidification to major carbon producers (PDF)
- The Law and Science of Climate Change Attribution
- The Science Connecting Extreme Weather to Climate Change
- Smoke, Mirrors, and Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to “Manufacture Uncertainty” on Climate Change
- The Climate Deception Dossiers: Internal Fossil Fuel Industry Memos Reveal Decades of Corporate Disinformation
- The Climate Accountability Scorecard: Insufficient Progress from Major Fossil Fuel Companies
- The Climate Responsibilities of Industrial Carbon Producers (PDF)
- Support for Lawsuits Against Fossil Fuel Companies
- Assessing ExxonMobil’s climate change communications (1977-2014) (PDF)
- Responsible for what? Carbon producer CO2 contributions and the energy transition
- Smoke and Fumes: The Legal and Evidentiary Basis for Holding Big Oil Accountable for the Climate Crisis (PDF)
- Scientist-Community Partnerships building successful collaborations
- Tracing Fossil Fuel Companies’ Contribution to Climate Change and Ocean Acidification
- Killer Heat in the United States: Climate Choices and the Future of Dangerously Hot Days
- Underwater: Rising Seas, Chronic Floods, and the Implications for US Coastal Real Estate
- Tracing Who’s Responsible for Temperature Increase and Sea Level Rise
Resources on climate litigation:
- Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University
- Climate Change Litigation Databases
- Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy
- Global trends in climate change litigation: 2019 snapshot
- US Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Justice timeline
- US Indigenous Law Portal
- Canada Indigenous Law Portal
- Australia Indigenous Law Portal
- Climate Judiciary Project at Environmental Law Institute
- ELAW Climate Litigation Strategies
- Holding your Government Accountable for Climate Change: A People’s Guide (PDF)
- The Climate Docket
- Law and climate change toolkit
- Oxford Sustainable Law Programme (forthcoming)