by Stephen Leahy
(IPS) -- British scientists say they now have proof linking Europe's deadly heat wave of 2003 to climate change caused by human activities, portending a raft of lawsuits against countries and companies.
Europe experienced unusually high temperatures throughout much of the summer of 2003, resulting in 14,000 more deaths than the seasonal average in France alone.
In a study published in the Dec. 2 issue of 'Nature' magazine, Peter Stott and colleagues from the Hadley Center for Climate Prediction and Research in the United Kingdom say they "estimate that it is very likely that human influence has at least doubled the risk" of extreme weather events, such as the European heat wave.
Although many scientists have suggested a strong link between rising greenhouse gas emissions, said to cause global warming, and increases in extreme weather events, this is the first study to demonstrate a link to a specific event.
Stott and colleagues used a computer model to compare the likelihood of the 2003 heat wave taking place with and without human activities, such as those that produce greenhouse emissions. They concluded that those activities at least doubled the chance of the heat wave occurring.
And since the heat wave was a result of human forces, then who is to be held responsible and pay compensation, ask the authors of another paper in 'Nature.'
"Litigation in relation to greenhouse-gas emissions is increasingly likely, and has already started," write Myles R Allen, a physicist at University of Oxford, and Richard Lord, a senior attorney at Brick Court Chambers in London.
Last summer eight U.S. states and New York City filed a lawsuit against five U.S. power companies for their contributions to climate change.
On Dec. 5 a coalition of U.S. environmental groups announced they are suing the federal government's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its continued failure to take action on global warming.
"The Bush administration is asking for five more years of studies while the world is warming and regular people will pay the price," said Gary Cook, climate coordinator for Greenpeace USA, in a statement.
"We are now asking the courts to intervene and order the EPA to enforce U.S. environmental laws and take action to address global warming," he added.
President George W Bush and his officials continued to vigorously defend their decision not to take part in the Kyoto Protocol, at a United Nations climate change convention in Buenos Aires this week. The international agreement to cut greenhouse gases will come into force next February.
According to media reports, the U.S. representative to the meeting, Harlan Watson, admitted his country is projected to emit about 15 percent more greenhouse gas in 2012 than in 1990, compared with a reduction of seven percent from 1990 levels that the previous Clinton administration agreed to when it signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.
Stott's research is an important addition to a growing body of scientific "detection-attribution" on climate change that is beginning to provide enough proof for citizens and groups to take companies and countries to court, according to Peter Roderick, a UK barrister with the Climate Justice Program, a coalition of international environmental organizations.
But while scientists have suggested, for instance, that flooding problems in Bangladesh in recent years have been made worse by climate change, it is unlikely that country will take the United States, the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases, to court, Roderick told IPS.
"For a whole variety of reasons, developing countries are very nervous about taking on the U.S. in court," he added.
But citizens and groups in Bangladesh and elsewhere could, and the Climate Justice Program could help them put together a case, said Roderick.
He says there is solid scientific evidence linking temperature increases to climate change, which means that people affected by melting permafrost and glaciers, for example, might have good cases for suing for climate change.
For instance, in Nepal melting glaciers over the past 50 years has led to the formation of some 20 lakes trapped behind ice dams, says Roderick. "If those ice dams burst, there would be horrendous damage downstream."
"Nepalese citizens should be entitled to protection from this inevitability," he argues.
But who is responsible for putting them at risk?
That is no longer as difficult a question as it once was. According to Allen and Lord, preliminary studies suggest that a substantial fraction of the current elevated level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can be traced to goods produced, sold, or used by only a few dozen major companies.
Those responsible include producers like coal mining companies, emitters such as coal-fired power plants and facilitators like automobile companies, says Roderick, adding, "it's just a matter of time before cases start coming before the court."
Litigation, however, cuts both ways.
Major automakers said Dec. 7 they will sue the state of California over an anti-pollution law that requires cuts in greenhouse gas emissions of 30 percent over the next 12 years. The manufacturers say the only way they can do that is to dramatically improve vehicle fuel economy, which would cost more than three thousand dollars per vehicle.
Instead of regulation, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said in a statement, the government should provide consumer tax incentives.
The lawsuit comes at a time when U.S. consumers want better fuel economy and are worried about global warming, says Eben Burnham-Snyder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S. non-governmental organization (NGO).
In November, Canadian officials indicated they plan to adopt similar standards as those in California.
"It's unfortunate the automobile industry is litigating instead of engineering," Burnham-Snyder told IPS.
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