An in-depth article in the Oct 22, 2019 Politico magazine on the emerging science of attribution: The new science fossil fuel companies fear – Researchers can now link weather events to emissions – and to the companies responsible. A string of lawsuits is about to give “attribution science” a real-life test – by ZACK COLMAN
Richard Heede spent a decade digging through “disheveled, dusty” tomes in libraries around the world searching for the answers he thought could help save humanity.
The Norway-born academic’s task was direct, but far from simple: Find out how many greenhouse gases the world’s fossil fuel companies, cement-makers and other industrial giants had pumped into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. A geographer by training, he tagged library visits onto work trips to pore over annual company and shareholder reports. (“Nobody had seen them for decades,” he recalled.) He painstakingly traced mergers and acquisitions as companies morphed and amalgamated. He enlisted volunteers across the globe.
Like most analysts, Heede started his work on climate change focused on what individual consumers could do to reduce their emissions. After all, it was the consumer who was “consuming” the product and actually releasing the emissions from the oil, gas or coal. But over time, he recognized there was a flaw in that approach: Individual consumers can make choices only among what’s already on the market — but who decided what was on the market? Other, larger forces had shaped an economy dependent on fossil fuels, he realized — companies who developed the markets for fossil fuels and influenced decisions to build the infrastructure that supported them.
He asked himself: Shouldn’t the companies who profited from those decisions play a role in mitigating them? With world governments making little progress toward reducing emissions, perhaps pressuring the companies whose products were causing the harm might have more effect?
“With federal policy being unsupportive and still emphasizing continued energy development, I just thought it would be a new lever to look at the companies that have their hand on the tiller,” said Heede, who now lives in Colorado. “And pressure can be exerted in a number of ways.”
By 2013, roughly a decade after Heede began his search, he had his answer: Just 90 companies had contributed nearly two-thirds of the world’s industrial emissions. He could even pinpoint the share of those emissions for which companies existing today are responsible.
In effect, Heede had established a pillar of a new field of research, now known as attribution science. But it wasn’t just an academic exercise: It’s a weapon that climate campaigners are starting to wield to put fossil fuel companies on the hook for billions of dollars in damages. It’s a kind of end run around a political system they see as forced into gridlock by fossil fuel industry influence.