As scientists confirm the current global heatwave was made twice as likely by manmade climate change, lawyers warn of increased risk of litigation relating to extreme weather events
The news that scientists have confirmed the heatwave currently gripping northern Europe was twice as likely to happen because of human-caused climate change is undoubtedly worrying, although it will not come as a surprise to much of the green economy.
Yet the findings of today's rapid attribution study are nevertheless of paramount importance to the global economy, and indeed any company interested in future-proofing its business against extreme weather events, market disruption, and potentially even legal action.
Carried out by researchers at the World Weather Attribution (WWA) network, the study's findings make it clear human activity is making extreme weather events like this summer's heatwave far more likely, not just in future, but right now in the present. It also comes off the back of similar warnings in the UK from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) last week.
"The logic that climate change will do this is inescapable - the world is becoming warmer, and so heatwaves like this are becoming more common," said Dr Friederike Otto, part of the WWA team behind the study and deputy director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford.
Defining a heatwave as the three hottest consecutive days of the year, the research compared currently high temperatures with historical data at seven weather stations across Finland, Denmark, the Irish Republic, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. The scientists then used computer models to assess the impact of anthropogenic climate change on the high temperatures.
Of course, the scientists stress their findings represent a preliminary analysis that is being published before the heatwave has come to an end, so their definition of an 'extreme event' is therefore in part based on forecast temperatures, as we are only half way through the year. As such, a more robust analysis is planned for publication in a scientific journal after the summer, which will also look at whether climate change played a role in the prolonged high pressure in northern Europe since May, and if so, to what extent.
Nevertheless, they conclude from their "conservative" preliminary findings that the signal of climate change within the current weather events is "unambiguous", and has made the ongoing heatwave in northern Europe two times more likely to occur.
"What was once regarded as unusually warm weather will become commonplace - in some cases, it already has," added Otto. "So this is something that society can and should prepare for - but equally there is no doubt that we can and should constrain the increasing likelihood of all kinds of extreme weather events by restricting greenhouse gas emissions as sharply as possible."
It is a stark warning that many across the green economy have been making or listening to for many years, but it is not one perhaps that has so easily cut through to wider society and to certain policymakers. But now there is increasingly immediate clarity that current extreme weather events such as heatwaves, drought and flash flooding are the result of humanity's industrial activity - and early signs of growing recognition among the public and media of this fact - what does this mean for businesses both in the short and longer term?
In a timely intervention, environmental lawyers ClientEarth warned today that businesses and governments which fail to mitigate and adapt to climate change - be it extraordinarily high or low temperatures, or volatility between dry and wet weather - face increasing risk of litigation.
As scientific understanding and evidence of climate change rapidly improves, it is strengthening the link between human activity and extreme weather events, which in turn can make it far easier to apportion blame for what were historically known as 'Acts of God'. Clearly, this has huge ramifications for the legal sector and the insurance industry, but it also gives further impetus for businesses to measure and disclose climate risk in order to better guard against extreme events and demonstrate they are taking reasonable steps to mitigate escalating risks.
ClientEarth lawyer Sophie Marjanac said governments and businesses had legal responsibilities to protect people from risks attributable to climate change. "Failure to act could mean they face expensive court cases for loss and damages resulting from extreme weather events," she warned.
It is not the first time such warnings have been raised. ClientEarth authored a scientific journal paper on the issue last summer, highlighting the growing likelihood of courts using attribution science as evidence in court cases. Another paper in May then built on these findings further. Of course, ClientEarth is itself no stranger to using the courts to push environmental issues, while another campaign group Plan B has recently sought to take issue with the UK government over its long term carbon reduction target. There are already instances of major oil firms facing legal challenges over alleged 'climate liabilities', while companies are facing increasing pressure from civil campaigners and shareholders to fully address climate risk.
The growing confidence within the scientific community that a link can be drawn between climate change and extreme weather events will only serve to increase the chances of these various legal actions gaining traction in courts around the world. As Marjanac observed, "if decision-makers continue to stand still on climate change, they can be sure that scientific improvements will spur on future climate change cases, as people seek to attribute responsibility for the devastating consequences of extreme weather events".
At a local level, avoiding material and litigation risk could mean businesses ensuring buildings in flood prone areas have adequate flood prevention measures in place, or landlords ensuring their apartments, if situated in regions facing more heatwaves, are fitted with appropriate ventilation or shading measures. But for carbon intensive firms with high historic emissions and a track record of downplaying climate risks there is also the threat posed by landmark legal action that seeks to hold them to account for their past actions.
Moreover, there are compelling reasons for firms to move swiftly to address these material and liability climate risks. After all, as businesses start to put in place measures to adapt and mitigate extreme weather events, the link between improving scientific evidence and the legal system is likely to become ever stronger.
Dr Friederike Otto said it was "important that lawyers and scientists talk to each other" and pointed to how courts could quickly become more adept in understanding complex climate risks. "I think at the moment there is a huge discrepancy between how scientists answer the attribution question and what courts and legal systems in the world can deal with in terms of scientific evidence," she said. "If there was a paper that said 'this is the standard protocol for how you do attribution' - because at the moment we don't really have a published paper - if that existed, that would be very useful for courts. That would be a way, and then scientists might be prepared to write that paper."
Today's study makes clear that climate change significantly increased the risk of the epic heat wave that is continuing to threaten lives and dampen productivity across large parts of the world. As the ability to confidently attribute extreme weather events to escalating climate risks strengthens so too does the likelihood of businesses facing both physical disruption and expensive legal wrangle. Business execs and shareholders can not say they have not been warned.
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