Does Attribution Science Give Climate Litigators a Smoking Gun?

Climate attribution science allows connections to be made between extreme weather events and a warming climate. The science is also being used to trace climate change to the activities of specific industries and companies, potentially generating evidence to fuel climate litigation.

A new scientific discipline, climate attribution science, is making connections between climate change and recent extreme weather events in the U.S. and around the globe. The science is emerging as a result of advances in computer power used to model weather and the climate, and as scientists have focused their efforts to understand the causes of increasingly frequent heat waves, droughts and flooding.

Guests Peter Frumhoff, chief climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University explore attribution science and the extent to which the cause and effect relationship between climate change and weather can in fact be understood. They also look at how attribution science can be used to trace the contribution to climate change of major greenhouse gas emitters, potentially creating new legal liability for industries and countries.

Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m Andy Stone. A new scientific discipline climate attribution science is making connections between climate change in recent extreme weather events in the U.S. and around the globe. The science is emerging as a result of advances in computer power used to model weather and the climate. And the scientists have focused their efforts to understand the causes of increasingly frequent heat waves, droughts and flooding.

On today’s podcast, two experts will explore attribution science and the extent to which the cause and effect relationship between climate change and weather can in fact be understood. We’ll also be looking at how attribution science can be used to trace the contribution to climate change of major greenhouse gas emitters, potentially creating new legal liability for industries and countries. Today’s guests are Peter Frumhoff, Chief Climate Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Michael Burger, Executive Director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. Peter, Michael, welcome to the podcast.

Michael Burger: Thank you very much.

Peter Frumhoff: Great to be here.

Stone: So Peter, I thought we might start with you. Could you tell us a little bit of your work about your work at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and how it relates to attribution science?

Frumhoff: Sure, thank you, Andy. I’m really delighted to join you, I lead our work on climate science and its relationship to kind of public decisions, societal decisions about climate change. And in that regard, I’m particularly interested in work particularly my focuses particularly on the questions of climate science, including attribution science that can inform societal decisions about responsibility for taking action to address the problem in that regard. And we’ll get into this later, I’ve been doing a fair bit of work that seeks to trace the contribution of emissions from major fossil fuel companies to the changes in climate that we’re now seeing it. 

Stone: Michael, what about you?

Burger: Well, attribution science has always been at the center of climate change of law and policy. And here at the Sabin Center, we look at the role that the science plays and should play in international, national, and subnational plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in environmental impact assessment, and in litigation. And most recently, among other projects, I’ve been working with a colleague here at the Sabin Center, and Radley Horton, a scientist at the Earth Institute on a project look that looks to map the relationship between the law and science of climate change attribution.

Stone: Peter, what are the fundamental questions that attribution science tries to answer?

Frumhoff: Well, to answer that question, and I think it’s helpful to break attribution science into two kind of major domains, the primary one often gets called extreme event attribution. As climate change is occurring, we’re seeing a rise in extreme weather events, heat waves, floods, droughts, and so on. And it used to be the case that scientists were asked about whether climate change was contributing to an extreme weather event that we witnessed in the real world and they would say, well, we really don’t have anything to say about whether climate change can cause a particular event.

Extreme event attribution signs emerged over the past 15 years, and now for some kinds of extreme events, is able to answer questions with quantitative rigor, about the change in frequency, or probability of heatwave, for example, that’s one domain. The other domain is increasingly getting called something like source attribution, which relates to what I was describing earlier, which is to say, for the changes in climate that we’re seeing, rising sea levels, rising temperatures and so on. How can we characterize the relative contribution of different sources of emissions, different sources of the cause of the problem, to the changes that we’re seeing? And in that context, people have looked at, for example, how the rise in temperature and other changes can be attributed to different nations of the world that’s relevant to the international climate negotiations for example, and the division of responsibilities among nations, increasingly as attention has been given to the responsibility of other entities, particularly fossil fuel companies, at the base of the carbon supply chain.

Research that I and others have been doing is asking the question about to what extent can we identify how Exxon Mobil or Chevron or other fossil fuel companies have contributed, through their actions, to the changes in climate that we’re seeing? This is broadly called source attribution. You know from a legal perspective, attribution science can help answer core questions about causation, the link between emissions, climate change, and the injuries that result from it that can ultimately lead to legal responsibility. The responsibility can take a number of different forms. Most importantly, I think, the form of object nations to reduce emissions, or even potentially liability for climate change harms.

Stone: So attribution sciences is relatively new, what has allowed it to develop? And how confident are we today of the cause and effect the connections that it makes, Peter?

Frumhoff: So event attribution science is about 15 years old, there are now something on the order of 250 papers that have been published in this literature. And an established quite rigorous set of methodologies have been vetted, for example, by the National Academy of Sciences and others, so that we have a shared understanding of particular approaches, particularly methods so that with quite high confidence for some kinds of extreme weather events, particularly extreme heat, and other meteorological changes that we’re witnessing, we can quantify, not whether the event was caused by climate change. That’s not the right question. But rather, to what extent did climate change, make it more likely? Or make it more severe? And with that question, for some kinds of extreme weather events, particularly extreme heat, flooding, droughts, we can answer that question with quite high confidence.

Stone: I want to ask you a question related to that an important point on attribution science is that it’s probabilistic not deterministic? And you just kind of did an intro to that. Can you explain this distinction and why it’s so important?

Frumhoff: Sure. Well, think of an analogy of baseball player who is using steroid drugs, right? So a baseball player might hit a certain number of home runs per year with steroids drugs, if he chose to use them, he might increase that number of, of home runs. You wouldn’t identify that the an individual home run was caused by steroid use, rather, you would say, and be able to say something about the change in the probability or the frequency of home runs being increased, in this case by steroid use.

And you can quantify just how much of that change has resulted also true for something like cigarette smoking, right? You can say smoking in broad strokes causes cancer, but it’s probabilistic. Some people who smoke cigarettes don’t get lung cancer, some people who get lung cancer, don’t smoke cigarettes for 40 years, and that’s why you got cancer, you can’t make that definite conclusion, well, but we can conclude in a societal important way that smoking increases significantly, and in a way that has legal and societal relevance, the risks of lung cancer.

And so we can in that context, for example, hold tobacco companies accountable for their contributions to that problem. So, the probabilistic nature of it is a is a factor in how we ask the question, you don’t say, “Did climate change cause hurricane Harvey?” for example. But you can ask the question, and people have published papers on this, to say how has anthropogenic human caused climate change and changed the severity of the impacts that are the amount of rain for example that hurricane Harvey released on the city of Houston? That is so just defines what are the questions that are answerable. And they’re ones that relate to its probabilistic danger.

Burger: And let me add a point here, plaintiffs in contract tort cases have in some cases, succeeded in relying on probabilistic proof, such as probabilistic estimates of health risk. Sometimes that’s framed as a more likely than not question, is it more likely than not that plaintiffs injuries were caused by defendants action, other courts have required more particularized causation be demonstrated. So, in the toxic tort context, which is a close analogue, I think to the legal liability issues surrounding fossil fuel companies. In regards to climate change, we have seen plaintiffs succeed in using probabilistic tests, though it’s not it’s not. It’s not unilateral or it’s not uniform, from court to court or case to case.

Stone: So we’ve seen lots of recent extreme weather from a California heatwave to heavy rain and flooding in the Midwest. Peter, which of these events might be attributed to climate warming?

Frumhoff: In the case of well, you know, we’re seeing heat waves now in California, but also extreme heat over 120 degrees Fahrenheit in large swaths of India, other parts of the Northern Hemisphere as well. In order to attribute climate change in a scientifically rigorous way, we need to do a body of research that quantifies the contribution of human emissions to the changes that we’re seeing that work hasn’t been done yet.

For the heat waves that are currently happening and hasn’t been done for the extreme flooding in the Midwest. So, we can’t give you a quantitative answer to that question. But we can say, for example, that with the flooding in the Midwest, a contributing factor is almost certainly the increase in precipitation that we’re seeing as a result of climate change that’s being caused by, for example, the warmer ocean waters in the Gulf of Mexico that allow the atmosphere that that to pick up more moisture and dump it. On the Midwest, that’s a trajectory of change that we’re seeing. That is contributing with very little doubt to the increased flooding in the Midwest.

But flooding has many factors, many human cause factors as well, where we build levees, for example, where we sustain them. How we manage precipitation, and the quantitative analysis, that event attribution research would do, to my knowledge has not been done for these events. So we can answer the question in general terms, but not quantitatively specific.

Burger: I think I’ll take a slightly different tack on it, which is that from a legal perspective, and from an adaptation perspective, really, it’s it may be less important, whether these events are caused by climate change, and who is responsible for climate change, because we know these risks are increasing, that the events are more frequent, and that the only reasonable policy is to adapt to these impacts. It’s interesting to look at some of the post disaster mitigation that we’ve been seeing recently, around the wildfires in California and the bankruptcy proceeding around Pacific Gas and Electric and the litigation resulting from Hurricane Harvey around the release of floodwaters. There, climate change is not emerging as a primary issue, or as a major issue in those particular cases. Risk is understanding the risk and adapting appropriately to it. And the failure to do that can lead to legal liability in and of itself.

Stone: So Michael, in Germany, there’s an effort underway to develop a rapid attribution service that would almost immediately make the connection where one exists between extreme weather and climate change, what purpose might the serve?

Burger: Well, this is not going to be particularly important in courtrooms. It may be useful to prospective plaintiffs and their lawyers considering whether to bring suit in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, or a climate related extreme event. But ultimately, it’s the science itself, and not its rapidity that will matter for judges and juries. As a communications tool. It’s I think it’s a high impact communications tool. It does generate some blowback, and it does raise some possible questions around methodologies. But for the most part, when we see these extreme events, people want to know how much of this is climate change responsible for? And in that respect, these rapid attribution studies provide some first answers to that question. 

Frumhoff: Yeah, let me add a point there. Andy, if I may, I agree with what Michael just said, I just wanted to emphasize that as the science and methodologies of attribution extreme event attribution mature the capacity to rigorous rapid response attribution studies increases, we’re not entirely there yet. But, you know, the peer review process that’s so important for science can be established for the methodology. And then applied in particular cases in a more rapid form, reducing the need in order to inform public understanding, as Michael was highlighting, of needing to wait for all of the contingencies and of timing related to peer reviewed science, to be able to put information out relatively rapidly to inform public dialogue at a moment which people are paying attention in order to not only raise awareness about climate change, but to help encourage conversations that relate to preparations for extreme weather events that are worsening as a result of climate change in some cases, and that can often happen motivated by an event, for better or worse than by a longer term conversation informed by subsequent research.

Stone: So that that ability, Peter to draw the direct connection is going to be important in preparing for future extreme weather events.

Frumhoff: I think it’s going to be important for strengthening the capacity of constituencies in a variety of communities, to have conversations about climate change in real time. So that it doesn’t get dismissed or overstated, but that their science it gets taken up in the media, and appropriately used to inform dialogues in real time in the context of the aftermath of an extreme event where people are truly paying attention to how do we both address the problem currently, but also how do we prepare for the next time This might come around.

Stone: So as you both have mentioned, attribution science might be used to draw cause and effect connections between climate change and the activities that are driving it. And this is important because attribution science might be used to inform legal liability for climate damages against we’ve been talking about into this point, Peter, you co-authored a paper that traced two thirds of total historic industrial greenhouse gas emissions to 90 companies, primarily in the fossil fuel industry. Can you talk about the key findings and connections drawn from that research? 

Frumhoff: Thanks, Andy. So the research you just mentioned was actually published by my colleague Richard Hedy, who published after an arduous number of years of painstaking research a database that quantified just how much coal oil and natural gas had been extracted, and marketed by individual fossil energy companies every year dating back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, he found that about two thirds of the industrialist sourced emissions of carbon dioxide and methane, two primary greenhouse gases, can be traced to these 90 companies.

 What I did working with Dr. Hedy and others, was to draw that database into climate models. In order to quantify how much of the change in global climate, particularly sea level rise, global average temperature, we’re now about the producer work looking at ocean acidification can be traced to the emissions from the products of Exxon Mobil, Chevron and other major fossil fuel companies.

Again, this is intended to inform dialogue, including but not limited to, I want to say legal dialogue about responsibility of companies science, that doesn’t determine responsibility. It’s doesn’t it clearly can be though, contribution to conversations, and legal and societal decisions about responsibility. There are lawsuits that are now being taken up that cite this research in a variety of jurisdictions in the U.S. seeking damages that I know Michael might speak to. But of course, there are other ways whether it be through divestment campaigns or investment decisions by shareholders, or public policies more broadly, that questions of company responsibility for the damages that their products have contributed to, can be taken up. And so, it’s our hope and our intent to ensure that this kind of science with other pieces of information, informing discussions as well, is useful to you know, the pressing decision about who takes responsibility for the damages. we’re now seeing

Stone: Mike, I’d like to ask you a question kind of related to another point that that same paper that Peter was just talking about pointed out, and that was that the paper found that the bulk of emissions from this group of 90 companies are actually post 1986, when climate impacts were already fairly well understood. This has come out recently, over the last couple years in relic revelations relate to some of the oil companies in the press etc.

Given that and given that knowledge that there is a link between emissions or there has been a link between emissions and climate change for quite some time, what are the possible legal implications that come out of this and in a very direct sense?

Burger: So I’ll take I’ll take a quick step backwards before coming directly to that question. In thinking broadly about the legal implications of attribution science, you can look at detection and attribution science writ large, which can tie global phenomena like sea level rise, global temperature increases ocean acidification directly to climate change. And some of the lawsuits that we’re seeing are focusing on ocean warming and sea level rise and not on extreme events. extreme event attribution can be can relate specific harms, from extreme events to climate change, and therefore create the conditions both of these really create the conditions for assigning blame, right, these, these climatic changes, temperatures, sea level rise, increasing intensity and frequency of extreme events, particularly extreme events.

These aren’t just natural disasters anymore. there are these are disasters that are caused by human activity. And that’s where the source attribution comes in. That’s where the studies that Peter was just talking about sort of come in and what these do is they identify bad actors, they put people on the hook or but they put companies potentially on the hook for these injuries that are resulting the 1986 line in the sand.

It is important because, you know, 30 years ago, we were at a point, when if we had started to take action as a global society, to address climate change, things would be a lot different now. And we would be on a much firmer course towards limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, or potentially even lower. But instead, we’re on business as usual trajectory towards the catastrophe. And the fact that these companies knowingly engaged in these activities, and that they undertook what was clearly a coordinated disinformation campaign to obscure public understanding, should weigh heavily in favor of, you know, holding them to a holding them to account. Now in the courtroom, the fact that they knowingly did these things, does matter whether it will be enough to overcome all the legal obstacles, standing between this moment and legal liability remains to be seen.

Stone: Well, I want to ask another question on that. Does attribution science serve in a sense, does it provide legal evidence? That wasn’t there before?

Burger: Yes, in a sense, it does. I mean, ultimately, if plaintiffs in the lawsuits that cities, counties, professional associations have filed against fossil fuel companies here in the United States, as Peter mentioned, they do cite to Ricky’s study and to enter Peters study, to know to make the connection between the activities these companies engaged in and the injuries that they’re complaining about.

It’s not quite evidence yet, because they’re not in an evidentiary phase. But if these cases do move to trial, and they do move to an evidentiary phase, then I expect that these studies and other ones will, will come forward and that there will ultimately be something of a battle of the experts, between the plaintiffs experts and the defendants experts about what are the best methodologies? What are the how much blame really can be assigned to, to these particular defendants, and so forth and so on.

So, it sounds like we’re gonna see more of this in legal circles going forward? It sounds like yes, we’re certainly not at the at the end of the road. In these lawsuits, there are more than a dozen lawsuits that have been filed just in the United States. And there are lawsuits that have been filed internationally, as well. And we’re at an early stage in all of those cases, I would say,

Stone: Michael, you co authored a report on climate change litigation for the United Nations Environment Program. I think it was in 2017. In that report, called climate change, a super wicked policy problem. And you wrote that one of the reasons this is so is that no institution and this is a quote, no institution has legal jurisdiction and authority aligned with the scope of the problem. Can you tell us about this challenge, and why potentially complicates litigation relating to climate change?

Burger: Ultimately, the causes of climate change are global. And there is no global government. There is the United Nations, of course, and there is the International Court of Justice. But these entities don’t have sovereign authority over individual nations. So, countries can be subject to the jurisdiction of the ICJ if they so choose, in particular cases. But one suspects that if the United States were sued about climate change at the ICJ, that they would, they would not agree to that.

So, there is no court and there is no government that is authorized, or empowered, to fully hold domain over all of the sources of climate change. And the Paris Agreement reflects that reality and in the way that it calls for a bottom up approach to national commitments to dealing with climate change. What does this all mean for litigation? Without question, the fact that climate change is caused by all of the sources of greenhouse gas emissions from around the world poses both a conceptual block and potentially legal block to plaintiffs seeking to have their claims heard in court. You know, I think that there are it’s an issue that’s being worked out frequently in the courtrooms right now, whether the sheer number of actors involved the sheer number of contributors to the climate change problem and the multi-jurisdictional transnational global nature of the problem means that courts have a much more limited role. At this point, again, I would say that we’re still in an early stage and the courts have not firmly settled on exactly what kind of limits the global nature of climate change poses for courts.

Stone: Peter, let me ask you a question related to that. Does the Paris Climate accord, in a sense provide a benchmark, which against which to judge a country’s climate performance and then by extension, set the stage for citizenry, for example, to say, we are not working adequately towards our mitigation goals? And then that’s kind of set a foundation upon which two to litigate? I mean, I know this is a question maybe for Michael, I just want to get your opinion on this one as well.

Frumhoff: Well, let me answer the question through science. And perhaps Michael didn’t speak to the legal end, there are certainly legal proceedings that have been moving forward in various countries, building off the Paris Agreement commitments to seek to hold nations accountable for not meeting their contributions yet, for example, to the to the goals of the Paris Agreement. And there are also provisions, nascent provisions in the Paris agreement that are difficult to formalize into meaningful action around loss and damage, that is to say, how do we account for and identify responsible parties for paying for the cost of climate change, particularly in the most climate vulnerable nations where climate change is being having the greatest harm where the capacity for adaptation and addition for mitigation is, is more limited.

But I just wanted to say that one of my hopes for the future of attribution science, both the extreme event version and the source attribution work that we’ve been talking about, is that it will move from a domain in which the decisions over what studies to do in what location are currently driven primarily by scientists interested in scientific questions. And therefore, because of where most scientists are, most of the research is in the United States or Western Europe, there are very few attributes in science studies, with a focus on the developing world. And there is within my conversations with colleagues in developing countries who are facing serious climate risks, a real interest, a pent up demand for an opportunity for science to inform an understanding of how both climate change is contributing to extreme events, whether it be the worsening impacts of tropical cyclones or other than sea level rise. But also, to understand how they can understand the contribution of different sources, for example, fossil fuel companies, to the changes and impacts and vulnerabilities that they face.

And so I think there needs to be a movement in attribution science from something that is broadly How shall we call this supply driven by scientists, to more demand driven by constituencies, including in the legal sphere, but also nations and communities? Who are interested in understanding how to prepare for changes, but don’t have access to science to inform those conversations in their nations in their communities? Because science is not set up in a process that enabled that. And so that’s a that will that doesn’t really answer the question about the Paris Agreement, per se, but it is the direction that we need to go in order for this conversation about science and forming questions of responsibility around climate change to move out of what is primarily industrialized country, us and Western European centric frame, the one that is more global.

Stone: Michael, what’s the kind of the moral legal side on this one?

Burger: So I guess there are a few things on loss and damage, you know, loss and damage has been a sticking point in climate negotiations since they began. And the possibility of a, for instance, a small island state going to court to seek compensation for the damages that they’re that that country is suffering as a result of climate change, has long been there the idea and it’s been discussed at various points.

But we still haven’t seen it. That’s not to say we won’t see it. And if we do see a lawsuit filed in some court or another, seeking compensation from the United States, the European Union, Japan, China, Russia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, others, you know, then then attribution science will absolutely be a key part of that case. As far as the Paris Agreement goes, you know what the Paris Agreement means outside of the United States is different than what it means inside the United States. Even setting aside the big, you know, hullabaloo around Trump’s announced withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. courts may be inclined to interpret the Paris agreement as an executive agreement rather than as a treaty and therefore having less legal stature within the United States.

Outside the U.S., we have already seen plaintiffs and petitioners, citizen groups and environmental groups, and individual citizens going to court to challenge the ambition of their national governments, and claiming, in essence that what their governments have pledged to do is simply not enough, because it’s not consistent with the temperature limitation goals of the Paris Agreement. And in a couple of instances, we have seen courts explicitly refer to the Paris Agreement as the appropriate benchmark in cases in Colombia and Australia, among others. So absolutely, outside the United States, the Paris agreement has is being used by litigants, as a benchmark and courts are referring to it as a benchmark, at least in some cases.

Stone: So taking all that and looking forward then, so how might attribution science specifically impact decision making among policymakers and the business communities? Again, going forward?

Frumhoff: Attribution science helps us understand the nature of current and future climate related risk. And its causes. It can should and ultimately, it must inform efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at every level, the international, the national, subnational and the corporate, and to adapt to the profound transformations to our environments that are already underway,

Stone: Michael, so should we be prepared for an onslaught of efforts to discredit attributes in science, as it couldn’t be more legal liability for government, industry, etc.

Burger: Climate Science has already been litigated in the courts for four years. And no court has adopted anything like a denier stance in regard to the basic elements of climate science. And that’s true of detection and attribution science writ large. So, no, I don’t expect there to be a wholesale effort to discredit attribution science. Even in regards to extreme event, attribution, I do expect that if cases move forward to trial, that there will be competing narrative, and that there will be competing evidence and that fossil fuel companies and governments will bring forward their own experts to both lower the you know, on the source attribution side to reduce the quantity of emissions that they can be held accountable for, and on the extreme event attribution side to raise questions about the certainty of the studies, the studies and the confidence levels of the science, and so sort of deflect blame from themselves or accountability. But in that respect, as I said before, I think that we’ll be looking at something that’s much more like a battle of the experts than a wholesale effort to discredit the nature of the science.

Frumhoff: And I want to add to, if I may. With respect to the source attribution work that I’ve been doing together with several colleagues to characterize the contribution of emissions traced to from fossil fuel companies to changes in climate. His work has been out in public now for several years. And I’ve not seen any efforts to discredit the fundamental methodologies. But we are beginning to see from some of the fossil fuel companies language about responsibility for emissions that can be seen as discrediting the outcomes or the conclusions of these studies.

So for example, we’re seeing some language from companies where they are talking about responsibility for emissions on the part of the companies being restricted to emissions associated with the extraction and refining of their products, at referring to the emissions from their marketed products, that is to say, the coal oil and natural gas that they sell, as an I’ll put this in air quotes, customer emissions, that is, you know, so our analyses, treat emissions across the whole supply chain from fossil fuel companies as allocatable to the companies themselves, that they’re responsible for those emissions, and that that pushback or that language about customer emissions, I think can be reasonably interpreted as a as an intent to shift the narrative so that they would be limited to what is essentially 1/10 of the total emissions associated with the refining and marketing of their products.

Obviously, that this is a this is not a scientific question. It’s an ethical, societal question about who takes responsibility who’s held responsible for me across the supply chain. I would argue that it’s a strong case that companies should be held responsible for the emissions of the products that they marketed while knowing since the mid 1980s, as you highlighted of the climate risks of their products, but again, I think this is something that should these cases come to court, we might see a ramp up of that sort of narrative.

Stone: Well, Michael, and Peter, let me ask you one final question here related to what we’ve just been talking about. And that’s it. Investors are increasingly demanding disclosure and transparency on corporate risk stemming from climate change. Are investors taking note of attribution science, as they evaluate the risks they see specifically related to any given company?

Frumhoff: So, absolutely. Investors, insurers, banks, the financial sector is seeking to better understand the risk that climate change poses to companies in multiple respects, including the physical risks that climate change poses to operations and supply chains. The regulatory risk that the possibility of more stringent regulations might pose to a company’s performance and viability and legal risk liability risk, the risk that companies may be held responsible for payment of damages or compensation for the impacts of climate change.

Burger: I agree with that. I would just add that if I may add that we’re at a fairly early stage with respect to shareholders, holding companies in this case, fossil fuel companies accountable for climate risks, there have been a number of shareholder resolutions, some that have surprisingly passed, including an Exxon Mobil over the past couple of years, requiring companies to issue two degree reports, reports identifying how they will align their business model with the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement.

Companies have subsequently produced reports, several of them now, intending to respond to those shareholder expectations. And what we’ve been seeing in the kind of initial rollout of such reports is that companies are often talking about a two degree report, but only again, referring to their emissions associated with extraction refining of their products, they never actually get to the point of saying, how will their emissions get to net zero consistent with the Paris Agreement goals?

I think there’s some work to be done, as shareholders move from demanding that companies respond to climate risks, to having good scientific information available to them. So that they can reasonably evaluate whether companies that they issue such reports are actually aligning their business models coherently and consistently with the Paris agreements and with the climate risks that they, now, unlike several years ago, when they were denying climate change, claim to support and so there’s a there’s a disconnect between the goals and reality of whether companies are responding in a way consistent with those goals. And I think that’s a space where there’ll be a lot of active work, including informed by science, so that fossil fuel companies, by their shareholders, by their investors, are increasingly held responsible for moving from a business model that essentially moves us on to a three to four degree world to one that might if we act swiftly aligned with a two degree world.

Stone: Peter, Michael, thanks very much for talking.

Burger and Frumhoff: Thank you, Andy. Pleasure. Thank you.

Stone: Today’s guests have been Peter Frumhoff, Chief Climate Scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists and Michael Burger, Executive Director at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. This episode of Energy Policy Now as well as three years of our archives are available on the Kleinman Center’s website. Our web address is kleinmanenergy.upenn.edu. And for new research blogs and events from the center, subscribe to our Twitter feed @kleinmanenergy. Thanks for listening to energy policy now and have a great day. 


Michael Burger

Executive Director, Sabin Center for Climate Change Law
Michael Burger is Executive Director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

Peter Frumhoff

Chief Climate Scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists
Peter Frumhoff is chief climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.