Victims of climate change may soon be suing the West

The argument that developed countries are to blame for global warming is growing stronger - and a reckoning is looming

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 5:09am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 5:09am

Would you have enjoyed the coziness and warmth of Christmas with your children or grandchildren just that little bit less if you knew that other people's children were dying because of it?

More than four million children under five years old are now at risk of acute malnutrition in the Sahel, an area of the world that is one of the clearest victims of the rich world's addiction to fossil fuels.

About 18 million people in the Sahel - the vulnerable pan-African strip of land that runs from Senegal to Sudan along the southern edge of the Sahara - faced famine last year and science is increasingly pointing a finger at those to blame for the persistence of drought - us.

This is an ineluctable consequence of improving the computer models of climate change. Of course, there are still large uncertainties. But what has long persuaded me of the strength of the scientific case for human-induced climate change is that climate-sceptic scientists have not managed to build a model that explains global warming without human-induced effects. The human hand is indispensable in understanding what has happened.

There are legitimate doubts about the scale of the impact, and about other offsetting factors that may reduce it. But what should be a wake-up call is science's growing ability to highlight the blame for particular extreme events, and not just in the Sahel.

For instance, a recent paper by Fraser C Lott and colleagues examined the increased probability that the 2011 East African drought in Somalia and Kenya can be attributed to human-induced climate change. Pardeep Pal and others investigated the impact of climate change on the £1.3 billion (HK$16.7 billion)insured losses from the flooding in Britain in 2000. Peter A Stott and others looked at the hot European summer of 2003, and its heatwave-related deaths.

Richard Washington, the professor of climate science at Oxford, rightly highlights the importance of this scientific work for its ability to change the global political and legal game. We saw how high feelings run with the walkout by 132 developing countries at the Warsaw climate-change talks last month when the new Australian government tried to block all talk of loss and compensation until after 2015.

The more certain is the attribution for blame, the more justified many developing countries will feel in protesting about the impact of rising sea levels on small island states such as the Maldives and Fiji or low-lying delta cultures such as Vietnam and Bangladesh.

The science also opens up the possibility that the victims of climate change could begin to take international legal action against the countries responsible, particularly the early industrialisers, such as Britain, Belgium and Germany.

This year a group of small island states threatened by rising sea levels, led by Palau, came close to asking the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion on the responsibility of historic emitters for global warming. The main reason they did not press ahead then was that the scientific case is strengthening by the month. A later case will be even stronger.

"There will definitely be a case in my lifetime and probably within five to 10 years," says Philippe Sands QC, a professor of international law who has advised endangered states. "It is going to happen. The only questions now are where, how and to what purpose."

Chris Huhne is a former UK energy and climate change secretary and a columnist for The Guardian