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Climate Enforcers Need Hard Evidence. Friederike Otto Has It

But the science of attribution can do rather more than simply tell us how climate change is affecting the weather. Otto wants to make use of his attribution reports to carry polluters accountable for extreme weather events. “We’ve began to work so much with lawyers to mainly bridge the knowledge gap between what we will say scientifically and what’s been used up to now by way of evidence,” he says. Due to ongoing court cases in Germany and Brazil, the science of attribution is moving to the courtroom.

CO-founder of OTTO World Weather Attribution in 2014 with oceanographer Heidi Cullen and climatologist Geert Jan van Oldenborgh. At first, Otto, who has degrees in physics and philosophy, thought the most important role of weather attribution was to unravel the complexity of weather systems with a view to quantify how much climate change contributed to extreme weather. Other scientists have discovered the right way to use climate models to attribute climate change to weather events, but nobody has tried to make use of this science to provide quick reports on recent disasters.

The first real-time World Weather Attribution study was published in July 2015. It concluded that a heatwave in Europe earlier that month was almost definitely more likely as a consequence of climate change. Other flood, storm, and rainfall studies followed, each published inside weeks of the disaster. But attribution research is not just about understanding past events—it may well help us prepare for the longer term, says Otto. “I now see attribution as a tool to assist us untangle the causes of disasters and help us use extreme events as a lens in society to see where we’re vulnerable.”

Pakistan’s devastating 2022 monsoon season is an example of this. Otto and her colleagues agonized over the wording of their report because there have been so few similar events within the historical record that their models had difficulty accurately simulating extreme precipitation events. They knew that rainfall in the realm was rather more intense than up to now, but they were unable to find out to what extent this increase was as a consequence of climate change. “It could also be that every one of that is climate change, nevertheless it could also be [the role of] climate change is way less,” says Otto. While the cause couldn’t be determined, the report highlighted how vulnerable Pakistan is to severe flooding, highlighting the proximity of farms and houses to floodplains, poor river management systems, and poverty as major risk aspects. “Vulnerability is what separates an event that has essentially no impact from a catastrophe,” says Otto.

World Weather Attribution’s work often makes headlines when it concludes that climate change increases the likelihood of maximum weather, but the other result will be much more useful for disaster-stricken regions. One investigation into a protracted drought in southern Madagascar found that the prospect of low rainfall has not increased significantly as a consequence of human-induced climate change. Awareness of this restores subjectivity to countries, says Otto. “If you think that all of this has to do with climate change, then there’s nothing you’ll be able to do unless the worldwide community comes together. But should you know that climate change doesn’t really play an enormous role, or in no way, then the whole lot you do to cut back your vulnerability actually makes an enormous difference.”

Photo: Maria Lax

IT’S NOT JUST governments which might be extremely curious about the outcomes of attribution studies. Courts are beginning to take notice as well. In August 2021, an Australian court ruled that the New South Wales Environmental Protection Agency had failed in its duty to guard the environment from climate change in a case brought by bushfire survivors. One of Otto’s attribution studies for the 2019-2020 bushfire season was utilized in a court-ordered report, but she only came upon about it when considered one of the lawyers involved within the case emailed her after the decision was announced. “It’s very nice to see it when the study we did has an actual impact,” he says.

If attribution studies can tell us that the disaster has change into more severe due to climate change, it also points to something else: who will be held responsible. Richard Heede, a California geographer, spent many years sifting through archives to estimate corporations’ carbon emissions back to the times before the economic revolution. The result’s generally known as the Carbon Majors: A Database of the World’s Biggest Polluters to the Present. The Carbon Directions 2017 The report found that half of all industrial emissions since 1988 will be attributed to only 25 corporate or state entities. State oil company Saudi Aramco alone is liable for 4.5 percent of worldwide industrial greenhouse gas emissions between 1988 and 2015.

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