How the Latest IPCC Reports Can Strengthen Climate Litigation Efforts

April 18, 2022 | 8:26 am
Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash
L. Delta Merner
Lead, Science Hub for Climate Litigation

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released its sixth assessment of climate change, comprised of three separate reports presenting the latest science on climate change, related impacts, adaptation, vulnerability, and mitigation at a time when more and more people are pressing for climate action. While many people rightly rely on the IPCC reports for the latest science, it is important to recognize they can also be a powerful tool for bolstering climate litigation.

The latest IPCC assessment makes it clear that the window for reducing emissions and limiting the worst impacts of climate change is closing—and while the world is way off course today, there is still some hope if we act now. Further delay is not an option.

Climate litigation offers an important avenue for addressing climate change, offering a mechanism for accountability. It can provide redress when private sector activities harm people or communities, or when systems designed to protect communities fail. Litigation is a tool for righting injustices, balancing power dynamics, and addressing harms.

We are already starting to see successes in the courts, the IPCC reported that the majority of climate cases outside of the United States have seen favorable ruling. One important win came when the Dutch court ruled that Shell must cut carbon emissions from both its operations and the oil and gas products the company sells. Here in the United States, there are dozens of cases being brought against fossil fuel companies and others claiming recompense for climate damages and prosecuting the companies for actively deceiving their shareholders and the public to block climate action. I’ll keep you up-to-date on important advances in the US courts, such as the recent victory in Hawai’i.

The latest IPCC report even recognizes litigation as a powerful strategy, noting that, “Outside the formal climate policy processes, climate litigation is an important arena for various actors to confront and interact over how climate change should be governed.” With litigation growing as a tool to address the mounting harms of climate change, it’s important to take time to better understand how important scientific findings and new publications can have an impact in the courtroom.

Below are three key findings from the report that could be powerfully deployed in the courtroom:

Climate change is harming people now

The latest IPCC is a definitive signal to the courts that climate change is not just a problem of the future, it is already harming people in every region of the planet. Climate-related extremes are occurring with increased frequency, intensity and duration. This is true for a wide variety of impacts, including heat extremes on land and in the ocean, floods, regional drought, and wildfire. Climate-related extremes already threaten public health and the environment. Climate change is also undermining agriculture, tourism and other economic sectors, as well as critical transportation, energy and water sanitation infrastructure, which are integral to human life.

The impacts, however, are not equally distributed. IPCC authors show that 40 percent of the world’s population now lives in areas that are highly vulnerable to climate change. The courts are one avenue through which to address the existing harms and unequal impacts of climate change and this improved scientific understanding connecting climate change to impacts can provide valuable ammunition to the cases brought to court.

Swift action is needed

The latest IPCC assessment clearly calls for immediate action, and emphasizes the pressing need for both mitigation and adaptation. I was personally drawn to the field of climate litigation because of the need to urgently address climate change. This sense of urgency, however, has not yet been clear in all courtrooms. Some courts have been wavered about the need for short-term action to address climate change. The latest IPCC assessment can help change that. It shows that our chances of limiting average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius are growing increasingly slim. Without transformative action to reduce emissions this decade, those opportunities begin to evaporate. With current and ongoing impacts and human rights violations decisionmakers need to understand the dire urgency for action.

Every fraction of a degree of warming that we can avoid matters because significant impacts and even irreversible tipping points will continue to mount as temperatures increase. Impacts are worse than early climate scientists predicted, and rising temperatures limit potential adaptation opportunities. Some climate impacts are irreversible and cannot be addressed by remedies down the line. Addressing climate change means taking transformative action now and this assessment can help the courts to truly understand that.

What’s more, current commitments and funding promises by world governments to reduce global warming emissions and adapt to the current – and growing – impacts from climate change are clearly insufficient. To prevent the worst impacts of climate change and to adapt to the current and ongoing impacts, fossil fuel polluters must be held accountable so that their outsized contribution to heat-trapping emissions is halted and so that they can help policymakers increase investments to achieve the large-scale, transformational changes needed across all sectors of the economy.

Disinformation has impeded action

Perhaps most importantly, the new IPCC assessment draws attention to research on disinformation and political polarization over climate science in the United States. The IPCC states that:

Since [the last IPCC assessment], climate change impacts have become more frequent, intense, and have affected many millions of people from every region and sector across North America (Canada, United States and Mexico). Accelerating climate change hazards pose significant risks to the wellbeing of North American populations and the natural, managed and human systems on which they depend (high confidence). Addressing these risks has been made more urgent by delays due to misinformation about climate science that has sowed uncertainty, and impeded recognition of risk (high confidence) [Emphasis added].

Over the last two decades, disinformation campaigns sponsored primarily by major fossil fuel companies have successfully manufactured doubt about the reality and seriousness of climate change and stymied meaningful government climate policies. This isn’t news to readers who follow the work of the UCS corporate accountability campaign. We’ve long made the case that the fossil fuel industry is standing in the way of action and needs to be held accountable. Now the IPCC wholeheartedly agrees and that reality can potentially help sway the courts as well.

Using IPCC findings in court

The IPCC plays an essential role in helping to inform the world about climate change. Its reports are the result of work by thousands of scientists and other experts around the world reviewing and summarizing thousands of research articles. The process of drafting IPCC reports is open and transparent, and 195 member countries agree on the final product. It’s hard to argue with consensus from 195 nations; and this global scientific consensus can be a powerful tool in the courtroom.

The global nature of findings reported by the IPCC helps to ensure that, no matter where we live, everyday people have access to critical information about their regional climate. Climate litigation is growing across the world and findings from the IPCC can inform litigation in nearly all corners of the earth.

The latest IPCC assessment shows the devastating impacts, not just of climate change, but of political inaction and corporate interference. The science is clear—the impacts are real and are happening now, yet government and private sector officials are blocking pathways to change. In this current reality, climate litigation stands out as a crucial tool for elevating the urgency of the climate crisis.

While some of the IPCC’s conclusions are heartbreaking, it’s important for advocates to bring them to the courtroom to help spur meaningful and swift climate action.