THE CHARITABLE SPIN ON Bill Lockyer’s lawsuit against major auto manufacturers is that it’s a politically inspired, headline-grabbing stunt by a state attorney general running for state treasurer. The alternative — that he might actually believe this suit has legal merit — may be more frightening.
Lockyer’s suit against the Big Six auto companies alleges that because vehicle exhaust contributes to global warming, the companies should be held financially liable for everything from wildfires to a bad ski season.
The suit is the latest salvo fired in the struggle between the state and the auto industry, which has separately sued the state over its attempts to curb global warming. But California shouldn’t be in the business of filing meritless suits to gain leverage in other cases.
For Lockyer, this is hardly a first. He joined several other states two years ago to file an almost identical lawsuit over the emission of greenhouse gases by power companies. That suit was rejected by the courts; the states are appealing. The judge zeroed in neatly on the problem at hand: Fighting global warming is a complex regulatory job that belongs to the legislative and executive branches. Once laws are in place, companies that break those laws should be made to pay. But holding law-abiding companies liable for the government’s past failures is another matter.
It’s true that Congress and the Bush administration have irresponsibly shirked their responsibility on this matter, and a separate, legitimate lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court brought by California and several other states is seeking to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. The federal government’s lack of action was also a major factor in the Legislature’s recent passage of AB 32, which sets the stage for reducing greenhouse gases 25% by 2020. These responses to federal inaction are appropriate; frivolous, extortion-style lawsuits against car makers are not. Lockyer’s new lawsuit against auto makers is akin to suing fishermen for depleting the ocean, even when they stick scrupulously to fishing quotas.
Lockyer contends that vehicle emissions — even legal emissions — are an illegal public nuisance partly responsible for a lower snowpack, wildfires and a host of other ills, current and potential. But liability here is a dicey thing to prove. Studies link warming to worsening Western drought, but that says little about any individual fire. If an arsonist sets a match to dry brush, who is at fault, the criminal or the Camry?
Global warming is, well, global. If the ocean level rises or trees die in the forest, how much of the responsibility belongs to a car sold in the U.S. and how much to the dirty Chinese coal plant or deforestation in South America? Presumably, the driver of a Hummer is more liable than the driver of an electric vehicle — as long as the battery isn’t recharged using energy produced by a polluting power plant.
Lockyer is right about the threat posed by climate change and our society’s responsibility to stem the trend. But in this case, he has mounted a silly legal battle that trivializes a serious problem.