Making attribution science work for policy making

The science of extreme weather attribution is able to estimate with increasing precision the part that climate change is likely to have played in natural disasters such as heatwaves and hurricanes. Not only does attribution science answer important academic questions, it also revolutionizes the politics of climate change, from furthering the case for liability and compensation after natural disasters to helping decision makers rethink the shape of our future cities and societies.

Will the UNFCCC climate conference look at attribution science?

Attribution science has equipped developing nations, many of which have battled with the worst impacts of climate change for decades, with a new tool that will reinforce their compensation claims. While the chances of financial compensation were nearly nonexistent when a global loss and damage mechanism was established in 2013, the case is now getting stronger.

"The president of Fiji [which holds the COP23 presidency] has indicated that he wants to make the issue a major part of the coming climate talks" says Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Bangladesh Independent University and a veteran of the UN climate change proceedings.

"When recognizing loss and damage, one of the issues we need to deal with is compensating people after the event," he says. "Now the US has laws for compensation at the national level, and single states can present claims to congress and agree on financial aid. But what do you do when the emergency is at a global level and it is scientifically proven to be human induced?"

Attribution science may help climate victims and hold polluters to account

Climate risk insurance that targets the poorest and most vulnerable is one course of action, but "another idea that is gaining momentum is to put a levy on fossil fuels companies to compensate victims who are suffering the impacts of loss and damage," says Huq. This movement, he believes, adds new weight to legal cases seeking to hold big polluters to account for climate change.

Attribution expert Friederike Otto, a researcher at the Environmental Change Institute of the University of Oxford in the UK, agrees that "It would now be hard from a lawyer’s perspective to construct a case maintaining that the climate change factor doesn't count".

Does that mean that from now on any damage from natural disasters will have a better chance of being compensated? This would open new questions on the risk of governments not acting in advance because they expect financial aid.

Better attribution helps get off on the right foot

"Attribution is not just an important advancement for science," Otto explains, "but also for development. When bad things happen, many just blame climate change," implying that good governance has nothing to do with the damage caused by disasters. "But that's often not true at all," says Otto. "It might just be that even without climate change, houses and other infrastructure were built on a floodplain, for example. And there is not much you can do."

So in countries where governance issues are felt more acutely, it is important to "disentangle what you really can do right now, addressing vulnerability and exposure". Better attribution will help hold governments accountable and allow officials to get off on the right foot with a new climate-sensitive approach to urban planning.