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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 April, 2003, 09:19 GMT 10:19 UK
Suing over climate change
The debate over global warming is gaining a new dimension: litigation.

Cloud, BBC
Climate science wrestles with uncertainty
The vast numbers affected by the effects of climate change, such as flooding, drought and forest fires, mean that potentially people, organisations and even countries could be seeking compensation for the damage caused.

"It's not a question we could stand up and survive in a court of law at the moment, but it's the sort of question we should be working towards scientifically," Myles Allen, a physicist at Oxford University, UK, told the BBC World Service's Discovery programme.

"Some of it might be down to things you'd have trouble suing - like the Sun - so you obviously need to work how particularly human influence has contributed to the overall change in risk," the scientist, who has worked with the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said.

"But once you've done that, then we as scientists can essentially hand the problem over to the lawyers, for them to assess whether the change in risk is enough for the courts to decide that a settlement could be made."

This next decade is going to see quite a lot of climate change cases around the world
Environment lawyer Peter Roderick
In 2001, the IPCC's third climate change assessment report stated that it was "likely" - meaning a better than a two in three chance - that human activities were forcing the global climate to warm up.

Some environmental lawyers believe this was a hugely significant step in paving the way to compensation claims against those responsible for climate change.

"Civil courts usually require a 51% proof of certainty, which is an interesting issue in terms of scientific levels of proof - and legal levels of proof," stated Peter Roderick, a lawyer who works with Friends Of The Earth International.

"I think there is no doubt at all now that the third assessment report has taken forward the legal significance of the science, and this next decade is going to see quite a lot of climate change cases around the world."

'Not practical'

Many, however, remain highly sceptical that, even if cases were brought, much could be proved.

"I would question whether it's desirable, at least at the moment, to take legal action against parties," said Julian Morris, an environmental policy specialist with the International Policy Network.

Flooding from the River Thames
Perhaps more flooding, but who do you blame?
"Who is responsible? You face the problem of identifying the extent to which humanity has caused change in the first place.

"Even if you actually attributed it to humanity, then you've got the problem of saying, 'well who was it?'."

Dr Morris added that it would also be difficult to assess who would deserve to benefit from any legal action.

"Who is going to be compensated? Is it going to be the six billion who are now supposedly at risk from the change in the climate?

"Is it going to be a more concentrated group of people, i.e. those who live on flood plains? And how do you get compensation to those people practically?

"The difficulties of obtaining compensation for several billion people at least, who might be worthy of compensation, would be enormous, and quite possibly would be larger than the benefits of setting up a system to enable that compensation to take place."

'Living with floods'
21 Mar 03  |  Science/Nature
Alternative water future outlined
24 Mar 03  |  Science/Nature
'Real conflicts' over world's water
20 Mar 03  |  Science/Nature



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