Who’s to blame for climate change?

Scientists are starting to explore politically delicate task of who is responsible for extreme weather disasters

Haiti was hit by the tail of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, leaving 54 dead and affecting thousands (Pic: UN Photos)

Haiti was hit by the tail of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, leaving 54 dead and affecting thousands (Pic: UN Photos)

By Sophie Yeo

Blame is the ultimate taboo in the world of climate change.

Raise the subject of who is responsible for the damage caused by climate change, and a friendly conversation can quickly come to an awkward end.

Rich countries – which are historically responsible for the vast majority of emissions – panic that admitting liability could lead to a hefty bill as they are made to pay for the damage they have caused.

And poor countries – which are suffering the worst impacts of climate change – worry that laying this bill on the table will so infuriate their wealthy big brothers that it will end any chance of a new UN climate deal, one of their last hopes for significant action to reduce global emissions.

To date, these worries have been largely hypothetical: scientists are still uncomfortable attributing any one extreme weather event to climate change, which makes finger pointing difficult.

But this could change. If scientists were able to say with confidence that this heatwave, or that hurricane, was more likely because of global warming, then rich countries could face a dilemma.

Having emitted the lion’s share of greenhouse gases to date, nations such as the US, the UK, Germany and France could be seen as morally, politically and financially liable for cleaning up the mess they have caused.

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Any scientist who becomes involved in the field of attribution trips unwittingly into a political maelstrom.

In theory, linking weather events to climate change is a purely academic exercise. But their models have the potential to cost major nations trillions of dollars.

This is the world of Myles Allen and Rachel James, two climate scientists at Oxford University.

They are trying to figure out whether climate change has “loaded the dice” towards certain extreme weather events.

“There’s no obvious link to us between the scientific question of what’s attributed to what, and the legal question of who pays for it,” says Allen, speaking to RTCC at his office at the Oxford University Centre for the Environment.

“But clearly in the negotiators’ way of thinking, there’s a link between attribution and compensation.”

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This link was made clear last year at the UN’s annual climate negotiations, which took place in Warsaw, where one of the central discussions/arguments was around the notion of “loss and damage”.

Vulnerable countries wanted a mechanism recognising that it had become impossible to adapt their way out of the impacts of climate change.

The level of greenhouse gas emissions means that a certain amount of losses and damages have already been locked in, and they need to be equipped to deal with it.

Rich countries conflated this with the notion of compensation. They interpreted it as poor countries demanding additional cash in damages for the devastation that their past emissions are going to cause.

This was branded unfair: they had already pledged to provide $100 billion a year from 2020, and besides, their industrial revolution era ancestors had not known that the fossil fuels they were burning would cause Bangladesh to flood a century later.

They resisted ferociously, and a mechanism was only agreed once it had been purged of any references to compensation.

This was the atmosphere of hostility and distrust into which James wandered, naively hoping that politicians would like to hear about her work.

She recalls: “We didn’t realise that it was going to be seen as a political intervention; we thought we could just go in and say ‘We’re friendly scientists, come and talk to us’.

After attending further meetings, she realised: “Especially the developed country negotiators were saying if there’s any mention of new finance they wouldn’t be interested at all.”

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The resistance has not only come from rich polluters concerned with avoiding a hefty bill.

Even scientists have pushed back on their work. An article in 2009 by Mike Hulme, Saffron J. O’Neill and Suraje Dessai accused them of being “misguided and unhelpful” in their attempts to attribute extreme weather events to climate change.

They warned that the new and uncertain science could create a new quibble that would handily detract from the actual business of disbursing money to countries in need.

It’s an argument they are sensitive to, says Allen, adding that there is some nervousness among poor countries that they will be required to provide yet more data they don’t have in order to qualify for payments.

“But I think the right reaction is let’s build the evidence base for those countries, rather than let’s not ask the question,” says Allen.

Besides, he adds, it is possible that the Warsaw mechanism on loss and damage opened the Pandora’s Box on the issue of blame and compensation. Politicians may be skirting around the issue now, but the question could soon be asked, and as scientists they want to make sure they’re ready for it.

“It’s clearly in the early stages, but I think it’s going to come up. From our point of view, we want the science to be ready for it when the questions arise, so we don’t have to play catch-up.”

He adds: “One concern we have is people tend to attribute anyway, without necessarily having scientific evidence.”

Science progressing

Despite this, politicians can probably relax for a while.

The science of attribution is progressing quickly, says Allen, but they are still a long way off being able to say for certain whether any one extreme weather event occurred as a direct result of climate change.

And certainty varies between the types of event. Allen was able to demonstrate, for instance, that the 2010 Russian heatwave was three times more likely due to climate change – but it is much more difficult to arrive at the probabilities surrounding hurricanes.

And the speed at which the science improving means that they are getting closer to being able to attribute extreme weather events to climate change in real time, rather than years later, which helps to force the blame game onto the political and media agenda.

But ultimately the uncertainty will never be entirely eradicated from the science, says James.

And this means decisions surrounding blame and compensation will always be political: how much does it really matter to those with the keys to the climate bank?

“The question of who’s to blame – is it the countries or the people or companies who have been emitting for ages, or is it the ones emitting now and in the future – is a political question,” says James.

“Everybody has a potential opinion about it and quite rightly. But that’s not up to the scientists to decide.”

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