Scientific challenges in the attribution of harm to human influence on climate

Myles Allen, Pardeep Pall, Daithi Stone, Peter Stott, David Frame, Seung Ki Min, Toru Nozawa, Seiji Yukimoto

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55 Citations (Scopus)


The authors of this Article review the current state of the science of attribution of anthropogenic climate change, with particular emphasis on the methodological challenges that are likely to confront any attempt to establish a direct causal link between greenhouse gas emissions and specific damaging weather events. Standard "detection and attribution" analyses, such as those cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), are generally sufficient to establish the strength of human influence on large-scale, long-termaverage climate, but fall short of quantifying the role of greenhouse gas emissions in almost any conceivable case of actual harm, since nobody is directly exposed to a change in global average temperature alone. The authors argue that it should be possible to agree on a relatively objective approach to quantifying the role of human influence on climate in cases of actual harm. There are, however, a number of questions to be resolved, including: can we apply the concept of Fraction Attributable Risk, developed for population studies in epidemiology, to the analysis of an unprecedented change in a single system such as the world's climate? Can we rely on computer simulation to address counter-factual questions such as "what would the climate have been like in the absence of twentieth century greenhouse gas emissions, " given that we are working with imperfect simulation models? Due to multiple anthropogenic and natural contributions to changing weather risks, it will always be necessary to apply some kind of principle of ceteris paribus to quantify the role of any particular causal agent, such as greenhouse gas emissions. How is this principle to be applied? These questions are not, in themselves, scientific issues, although how they are to be resolved will have a direct bearing on how and whether climate science can inform specific causal attribution claims. In summary, we need the legal community to ask the scientific community the right questions. It is imperative that these issues be resolved as soon as possible, to avoid having them become entwined in the outcomes of specific cases. Thus, this Article serves as a kind of tutorial, going over some material that many will find familiar in order to place it in the context of attribution.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1353-1400
Number of pages48
JournalUniversity of Pennsylvania Law Review
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2007
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Law


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