Improvements in Attribution Science may Inform Retrospective Analysis of Harvey

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Oxford scientists are proceeding with a retrospective analysis of human influence on the severity of the extreme weather event in Texas and Louisiana. The last annual report issued as the Bulletin of Atmospheric and Meteorologic Society indicated that attribution science had improved – being able to attribute portions of, or intensity increases to, heat waves, wildfire and heavy rain events. 

According to a new article titled, Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath could see pioneering climate lawsuits,

After disasters in the United States like Hurricane Harvey, lawyers get busy with lawsuits seeking to apportion blame and claim damages. This time, a new kind of litigation is likely to appear, they say – relating to climate change.

That’s because rapid scientific advances are making it possible to precisely measure what portion of a disaster such as Harvey can be attributed to the planet’s changing climate.

Such evidence could well feed negligence claims as some victims of the hurricane may seek to fault authorities or companies for failing to plan for such events, according to several lawyers interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“As extreme weather events and related damages and other impacts increase in severity … courts will increasingly be called upon to seek redress for damages suffered,” said Lindene Patton, a risk-management lawyer with the Earth & Water Group, a Washington-based specialty law firm.

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The prospect of attributing portions of extreme weather events to climate change has lawyers suggesting that a new kind of litigation is emerging.

For Patton, the level of certainty reached in attribution analyses means extreme weather victims will increasingly be able to seek compensation on grounds that damages they sustained were foreseeable.

“Attribution science can inform that legal process,” she said.

In the case of Harvey, possible lawsuits could target government agencies, companies managing infrastructure or architects and engineers who have been involved in building damaged infrastructure, from sewage-treatment plants to levees.

People whose new housing development is flooded – as many have been in Houston’s metropolitan area – may, for instance, seek damages from municipal planners, she said.

Houston’s explosive growth into a sprawling metropolis – now the fourth largest in the country – is widely attributed to the city’s relaxed zoning that has made housing particularly affordable.

But in the process, between 1992 and 2010, some 25,000 acres (100 square km) of wetlands that act as natural flood barriers by soaking up rainfall have been paved over or otherwise covered, according to a 2015 study by Texas A&M University.

“There could be an inquiry into whether public officials appropriately managed land use and development in a way that met their duty to their constituents,” Patton said.

In that scenario, attribution science findings could serve to answer the question, “What would have happened if you … hadn’t covered over those wetlands,” she said.

Insurance companies may also seek to determine if government bodies that neglected to make flooded office buildings or strip malls resilient to climate change, for instance, should be on the hook for payouts, said Patton.

But the list of event classes where attribution science had been successful at analyzing with high certainty the contribution of anthropogenic emissions did not include hurricanes in 2016. That said, no type of event was on the list with high confidence just a few years ago. This area of science is advancing rapidly and is increasingly informing litigation. It is worth keeping a watch on attribution analyses.