Last Updated:Friday, October 31, 2003. 3:38pm (AEDT)

Climate change creates legal minefield

After tobacco and asbestos, litigators now predict that climate change will be the next legal minefield. With many scientists blaming greenhouse gas emissions for the more extreme weather conditions being experienced around the world, a new report says that governments and fossil-fuel based companies are the key targets, with multi-million dollar cases already being played out in the United States.

There's no doubt extreme weather events are becoming more common, with floods, drought and fires multiplying over the last decade. Scientists agree global warming is a contributing factor.

A new report compiled by international law firm, Baker and McKenzie, warns people are now looking to lay blame.

Lawyer and report contributor, Martijn Wilder says there are numerous ways in which companies, governments and individuals are accusing others of being responsible.

"The main possible actions are either a government suing a government, or an individual or an environmental organisation suing a company for failing to do something, or alternatively, as we're now seeing in the US, for governments or individuals suing the regulatory authorities for failing to deal with greenhouse emissions," he said.

The cases in the United States involve a group of environmental groups, joined by three American cities, suing the US export credit agencies for funding fossil fuel projects.

Another group is suing the Environmental Protection Agency for a lack of action.

Lawyers warn the same will happen here.

"The reality is that those who are probably going to be most exposed are the companies who have publicly taken an anti-climate change line," Martijn Wilder said.

The insurance industry is also deeply concerned. A changing, less predictable climate may ultimately compromise the industry's ability to pay clams, and it's an issue it wants addressed with urgency.

Tony Coleman, the Chief Risk Officer for Insurance Group Australia, says that if the claims rise, this will result in an increase to community insurance costs.

"I mean, at the end of the day the insurance industry, essentially 80 per cent of our costs are the claims we pay, so if claims go up, naturally that means the cost to the community as a whole will ultimately go up as well,” he said.

But exactly who's liable is a dilemma that's still being challenged, whether it be the companies that produce the fossil fuels, or the end-users who emit greenhouse gases.

But as scientific evidence builds, the likelihood of proving the link is increasing.

Shadow Environment Minister Kelvin Thomson says that the report indicates that the natural disaster claims could see a dramatic increase to insurance liability costs.

”As a result of increased incidence of so-called natural disasters, the report tells us that the insurer, Munich Re, forecasts that their insurance liabilities, from climate change, could go up to $300-billion by the year 2050," he said.

--Adapted from a story by Sarah Clarke aired on the 7.30 Report on October 30.