APRIL 19, 2021 | WILLIAM ALLISON
A prominent academic with direct ties to the climate litigation campaign confirmed in a recent E&E News article that so-called “climate attribution science” was designed specifically to support lawsuits against major energy companies. The comments undercut the credibility or objectivity of its proponents, including Peter Frumhoff of the Union Concerned Scientist who has been delivering different messages to public and private audiences about the use of attribution science.
Climate litigation supporters have claimed that attribution science should serve as objective evidence in lawsuits against major energy companies, as it purportedly links a specific amount of greenhouse gas emissions to specific operators, thus providing an avenue by which a court could assign damages to companies. Yet, as University of Oxford climate expert and litigation supporter Friederike Otto told E&E News, attribution science was created solely to bolster these lawsuits. As the article notes:
“But Friederike Otto, a climate expert at the University of Oxford who has worked with [Myles] Allen, said her efforts to link extreme weather events to climate change have always been tied to the possibility of legal action. ‘Unlike every other branch of climate science or science in general, event attribution was actually originally suggested with the courts in mind,’ she said.” (emphasis added)
This stunning admission from Otto undercuts any claim that attribution science should be viewed as a neutral or objective resource by courts of law or policymakers. In fact, Otto herself has relied on climate attribution work to support climate lawsuits as a 2019 E&E News story mentions:
“Friederike Otto, a climate expert at the University of Oxford and lead scientist at the World Weather Attribution project, said she talks ‘a lot with lawyers’ about how attribution science could be used as a litigation tool.” (emphasis added)
Otto also signed onto a motion in support of San Francisco and Oakland’s climate lawsuit and the E&E News article mentions that she works with Myles Allen, another climate academic at Oxford, who, the publication notes, “authored what is widely considered the first attribution study on the 2003 European heat wave,” and he wrote an op-ed that same year linking attribution science and lawsuits.
Nor is this the first time that supporters of climate litigation have cited the need for attribution science to bolster their lawsuits like plaintiffs’ attorney Vic Sher did in 2017.
Different Audiences, Different Messages
For years, Peter Frumhoff – a key player in the climate litigation campaign has been working behind-the-scenes for years to push attribution research forward in the hopes it could be used for litigation. But in the most recent E&E News story, he stated the exact opposite to a public audience.
“In an interview with E&E News, Frumhoff rejected the notion that his work was designed to help local challengers in the climate liability lawsuits…‘The research we’ve done and published on attribution has definitely not been motivated by any specific piece of litigation or to inform any specific piece of litigation,’ Frumhoff said.” (emphasis added)
It runs counter to everything Frumhoff has said to fellow activists in the past as they have made this research central to the efforts to promote climate litigation for nearly a decade. In 2012, he and the Union of Concerned Scientists helped organize the La Jolla conference, where the playbook for the entire climate litigation campaign was designed, which included discussion on the attribution research done by Richard Heede, the leader of the Climate Accountability Institute. Heede is one of the preeminent persons working in the attribution space and his “Carbon Majors” report was highlighted in the E&E News article and has received extensive media attention.
The summary document from the La Jolla conference showed that Matt Pawa – a plaintiffs’ attorney who has served as outside counsel in multiple climate cases – believed that attribution research would aid litigation:
“Most of the workshop’s participants responded positively to Heede’s research. Matt Pawa thought the information could prove quite useful in helping to establish joint and several liability in tort cases, but he cautioned that, in practice, a judge would likely hesitate to exert joint and several liability against a carbon-producing company if the lion’s share of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could not be attributed to that company specifically. Nevertheless, he said this kind of accounting would no doubt inspire more litigation that could have a powerful effect in beginning to change corporate behavior.” (emphasis added)
That document concludes with a clear message about the use of attribution science:
“Several participants agreed to work together on some of the attribution work already under way…and build an advocacy component around those findings.”
In 2015, Frumhoff told Dr. Edward Maibach, who leads GMU’s Center for Climate Change Communication, in an email that “we’re also in the process of exploring other state-based approaches to holding fossil fuel companies legally accountable—we think there’ll likely be a strong basis for encouraging state (e.g. AG) action forward.”
The next year, Frumhoff secretly briefed a group of state attorneys general who were pursuing climate lawsuits against major energy companies, and the next year, co-wrote an op-ed in The Guardian touting his own attribution science. Part of the piece reads:
“As scientists further identify the role that climate change has made to exacerbating this tragedy, courts of law and public opinion should judge whether they are paying their fair share.”
Frumhoff has a well-established history of touting attribution science and supporting climate litigation. For him to now claim in 2021 that the research wasn’t designed to bolster the lawsuits shows that he has different messages for public and private audiences.
The Biased Nature of Attribution Science
Otto’s statement in E&E News is further confirmation that attribution science was created to support climate litigation, as Roger Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado’s Center for Science & Technology Policy Research, explained:
“Climate event attribution research as stealth advocacy … So-called event attribution studies are perfectly legitimate but should be held to the same level of rigor as any other area of research. Deploying them as a basis to file lawsuits or influence policy making only underscores the need for such rigor.” (emphasis added)
Pielke Jr., who has written about climate change and the need for viable solutions but sees how attribution science can easily be corrupted, certainly seems to be on to something.
One of the biggest names behind attribution science is Richard Heede and his research was funded by the Rockefeller network, which has manufactured the entire climate litigation campaign. He co-founded the Climate Accountability Institute, which was also an organizer of the La Jolla conference, and where Pawa previously served on the board of directors and Frumhoff is on the board of advisors. Other past and current CAI directors and advisors are noted climate litigation supporters including Naomi Oreskes and Carroll Muffett.
Heede’s “Carbon Majors” report plainly stated its purpose was to hold energy companies “legally responsible” and to support litigation:
“In particular I want to thank Peter Frumhoff, who has been the champion not only of the database but of its scientific value to climate modelers, analysts, climate leaders and policy experts, as well as to litigators in pursuit of climate justice and the protection of human rights.” (emphasis added)
“The Climate Accountability Institute was formed in 2011 to confront fossil fuel companies. … We work with investigators, human rights commissioners, advocates and lawyers in an effort to curb the carbon industry’s enthusiasm for unabated fossil fuel development.” (emphasis added)
Nor is Pawa the only plaintiffs’ attorney to pursue attribution science to support climate litigation. Vic Sher, a partner at Sher Edling LLP, which is representing the majority of the states and municipalities that have brought climate lawsuits against energy producers, said in 2017 he has worked with Heede to further develop attribution science in order to help strengthen his own cases.