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Interrogating the ‘science of climate accountability’: Allocating responsibility for climate impacts within a frame of climate justice


Communities around the world are already facing the impacts of climate change. In this 1°C warmer world, many of those who have already endured impacts have little recourse, while ‘big emitters’ have largely externalized costs of their activities. The field of climate accountability has emerged as a response to this uneven distribution of harms and gains. The question—who ultimately is responsible for climate impacts?—has been asked with increasing frequency over the past decade in both policy spheres and litigation as extreme events have increased in both likelihood and intensity. In this dissertation, I interrogate this broader field of climate accountability, leveraging cross-disciplinary methodologies to build evidence for—and identify gaps in—this field. The central question underpinning the dissertation is: who is responsible for climate impacts, and how can the field of climate accountability best serve impacted communities?

To do so, I build a conceptual framework to guide allocating causal responsibility (Chapter 1). Identifying causality for impacts is an insufficient and yet necessary component of all proposed climate accountability mechanisms. The bulk of this dissertation then tests this conceptual framework by conducting ‘end-to-end attribution’—or attributing climate impacts to sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—by focusing on climate change-related drought impacts in the Southwestern United States. End-to-end attribution broadly includes three components: extreme event attribution (Chapter 2), impact attribution (Chapter 3), and source attribution (Chapter 4). Chapter 2 presents two detection and attribution (D&A) analyses, quantifying the impact of increased temperatures from anthropogenic climate change on local vapor pressure deficit (VPD) and vegetation health in the Four Corners region of the Southwest. The studies find that anthropogenic forcing increased temperatures, corresponding to sizeable increases in VPD and substantial impacts on vegetation health. Chapter 3 examines climate-related drought impacts for A:shiwi—or the Zuni Tribe—in New Mexico. The chapter presents the results of ethnographic field work and archival analysis, outlining the types and extent of climate impacts faced by the tribe, conceptions of causality for those impacts, and lessons learned for appropriate approaches to responsibility. Finally, Chapter 4 conducts source attribution by tracing nation-state, industrial, and consumer-based contributions to GHG emissions and the actions, attitudes, and omissions which have accompanied those emissions. It furthermore presents a systematic analysis of climate denial, doubt, and delay messaging from the American electric utility industry. This dissertation concludes by reflecting on the challenges associated with end-to-end attribution, including where current approaches may advance versus hinder the pursuit of climate justice.

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