New Earth Day Report Shows Broad Judicial Agreement on Climate Science

April 2020

(Washington, DC): Climate change and climate science have been the subject of a great deal of discussion and political controversy here in the United States. In this era of information and disinformation, wouldn’t it be great if we had a vehicle for separating fact from fiction in this important area? A new report from ELI reveals that we already have a mechanism for crunching truth: the judicial system. As explained in Climate Science in the Courts: A Review of U.S. and International Judicial Pronouncements, courts are indeed treating as valid and authoritative the science that says that the climate is warming, that human activity is driving the observed and anticipated changes, and that those changes will have a variety of adverse impacts in the United States and globally.

“Science is of course playing a major role in the sorting of the issue most immediately before us — the coronavi­rus pandemic,” said ELI President Scott Fulton. “And we are seeing broad societal acceptance of fairly dramatic changes based on what the data are telling us about the COVID-19 threat. It will be interesting to see whether this experience will leave society any better able to come together around climate science. The courts, it seems, are already there.”

The report examines judicial pronouncements in different climate-related proceedings since 2015, including in civil, administrative, constitutional, and criminal law matters, in the United States and in a dozen foreign jurisdictions. The report, which is the subject of a special Earth Day episode of People Places Planet Podcast, concludes with a discussion of whether, and how, this judicial consensus might inform public understanding of, and debate about, climate change.

The report’s main conclusions are:

  1. Vast judicial agreement exists on the causes, extent, urgency, and consequences of climate change. This finding holds true across U.S. federal and state courts, across different types of proceedings, and across jurisdictions. This is a major shift since the early climate lawsuits when climate skepticism was still commonplace among judges and litigants.
  2. Parties, including the U.S. federal government, appear to agree on basic climate science even where they may dispute its legal implications.
  3. The U.S. judicial experience has been similar to the experience in other countries, where courts have been reviewing much of the same scientific evidence and making many of the same findings of climate facts. In this sense, climate science has acted as the ultimate lingua franca across courts.
  4. The judicial consensus on climate science has not always translated into judicial intervention. Courts, especially in the United States, have generally exercised restraint and deferred to the representative branches of government to devise solutions to the climate challenge.
  5. Judicial findings on climate science offer currently untapped potential for enhancing public understanding of climate science and for breaking through political obstacles to climate solutions.  

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