It was just over a year ago that the city of Boulder joined Boulder and San Miguel counties in a pioneering lawsuit to hold two fossil fuel companies responsible for damages associated with adapting to climate change, the first plaintiffs to pursue such a case that were not based in coastal states.
Not much has happened in the courtroom during the ensuing year, as a warming planet and ongoing scientific research has produced no shortage of cautionary headlines about the planet that future generations may inherit.
A program Thursday evening at Colorado Law’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment will address the growing trend of climate litigation and how it relates to the Boulder-San Miguel lawsuit against Exxon Mobil and Suncor Energy, seeking to hold them financially accountable for “reckless actions and damages” and “knowingly and substantially” contributing to the climate change crisis.
Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science for the Union of Concerned Scientists, is one of the featured panelists at the program, “Holding Fossil Fuel Companies Liable for Climate Change Harms in Colorado.” She plans to share some of the science of attribution — linking specific events and trends to human-caused climate change.
Citing massive wildfires in the western United States in recent years such as the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire which burned 346 homes and killed two people in Colorado Springs, Ekwurzel said, “Of the total cumulative acres burned in the western states, when you look at the evidence, and look at the science, about half of the cumulative acres that burned are attributable to human-caused climate change.”
A 2016 paper, “Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests,” attributed 55 percent of increased fuel aridity between 1979 to 2015 to human activity.
“From human-caused climate change, we’re at 1 degree Celsius or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit” of warming since the onset of the Industrial Age, Ekwurzel said Wednesday. “We’re already dealing with events like the Waldo Canyon fire and other horrific fires, where first responders and hotshots are risking their lives, trying to protect people and property. These fires are ferocious.”
She noted that the upper Colorado River Basin does not show any change in precipitation trends, but that decreased river flows have been observed, and that “7 to 50% of that reduction of flow between the years 2000 and 2014 is attributable to that temperature increase from climate change.”
Ekwurzel has strong memories of plowing through ice-choked seas in icebreakers on scientific research trips, and said she has spent decades immersed in the science of climate change. She is a contributing author on the Fourth National Climate Assessment, released in November 2018, which predicted that if significant measures aren’t employed to rein in global warming, resulting damage would knock 10% off the size of the U.S. economy by the century’s conclusion.
“We have ramped up our hyrdrologic cycle,” she said, words that might resonate with those who lived through Colorado’s September 2013 flood. “We have basically turbocharged it with climate change.
“What we say as scientists, one rule of thumb, is that the wet places are getting wetter and the dry places are getting drier. But that is too simple. When it rains, it is more likely to be torrential and devastating. When we have a drought, it is likely to be worse.”
She noted another recent climate change lawsuit, that of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association, filed in November against 30 companies, most of them oil producers, arguing that the fossil fuel industry is directly to blame for warming-related damages to the West Coast’s iconic Dungeness crab fisheries.
In the mountain states, she said, Colorado and its neighbors are already having to reconsider the future of winter sports and what skiing and other similar activities will look like as snow seasons diminish and mountain snowpacks are depleted.
“Places are stuck and have to adapt. Who is paying for climate change? Right now, it’s an important discussion,” Ekwurzel said. “This is a harmful product. So, that’s what is being tested here.”
Ekwurzel said no one has approached her about serving as an expert witness in the Colorado lawsuit.
“We are supporting with science. We are sharing the science publicly,” she said of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We are not directly involved with the lawsuit.”
The Colorado lawyer representing the plaintiffs in that suit is Kevin Hannon, whose practice is based in Denver. Although the suit was originally filed in Boulder District Court, the defendants quickly and successfully moved to have it transferred to federal court in Denver — seen as a more favorable venue to the companies targeted by the litigation. Federal judges have already dismissed similar lawsuits in both New York and California
“The hearing on plaintiffs’ motion to remand the case back to state court will occur on May 30 in federal court in Denver” before U.S. District Judge Wiley Daniel, Hannon said Wednesday. He does not expect a decision on that matter to come that day, or very soon after.
Despite the array of sobering reports and findings concerning climate change at her fingertips, Ekwurzel said that in the past six months she has grown more optimistic about the planet’s future as it relates to climate change than she has been in quite some time.
“I meet with a lot of people who are engineers, physicists, chemists, social scientists who are studying how to have better energy storage systems,” she said. “The storage issue is really important. To have 24/7 type of power, we’re on the precipice of it.
“They are looking at solutions, looking at widely available materials that are cheap in many locations in the U.S., and around the world. If we were to invest in all students coming out of the University of Colorado and people around the world, there are many ways we can solve climate change. I am more optimistic than ever.”
Back on the subject of the Boulder-San Miguel lawsuit, Ekwurzel said, “Economics is one of the major developments in climate change research in recent years. That is getting much more robust
“It’s no longer a luxury, not to understand climate change risks to your business, your insurance profile or as a political leader to discard the latest impacts …and what that means to adapting.”
If you go
What: Holding Fossil Fuel Companies Liable for Climate Change Harms in Colorado
When: 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: The Wittmyer Courtroom of the Wolf Law Building on the University of Colorado Boulder campus