In a first-of-its-kind suit, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer is demanding damages from automakers for the impact of global warming. “Because, after all, the California attorney general is the one who should be deciding national policy on the global warming controversy,” notes Ted at Point of Law. Even accepting Lockyer’s contentions at face value, autos sold in California contribute less than 1 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions (David Shepherdson, “Calif. sues over auto emissions”, Detroit News, Sept. 21).
Is Lockyer making it up as he goes along with the new suit, legal-theory-wise? It would seem so. His theory that autos constitute a nuisance have never been enacted as law even by the California legislature, yet he’s asserting it retroactively to punish past behavior by Detroit and Japan worldwide. His views clash strongly with those held by elected officials in many other states, which is one reason our system gives the U.S. Congress, rather than the California attorney general, the right to set national environmental policy. His notion that internal combustion engines might not be unlawful in themselves, but constitute nuisance in this case because manufacturers could be doing more to minimize their impact, makes as much sense (which is to say, no sense whatever) as if he sued California’s own drivers on the grounds that they contribute to the problem by taking unnecessary trips.
Prof. Bainbridge has quite a bit more to say about the abuse of power involved in using this type of litigation as an end run around the political branches of government which are the proper locus of authority on policy matters of this sort (Sept. 21).
Reader Earl Wertheimer writes: “I would rather see the automakers simply agree to stop selling cars in California. Let them walk & bicycle for a while. This would promote better fitness and also reduce future obesity lawsuits.”
Reader Loren Siebert writes: “I wonder if the discovery process will include how many motor vehicles the state of CA has purchased and operates.” And Nick Fenton at DTT Buzz has suggestions for more litigation (Sept. 20).
More: Lockyer “is unlikely to win” the suit, according to legal experts interviewed, especially since “a similar case brought by California and other states against utilities companies in 2004 failed in the courts”. “Even with a small chance of success, environmental advocates say the new legal action is useful and necessary”, one reason being “to pressure carmakers”. “I hope that automakers realise this will be the first of a series of lawsuits,” says Jim Marston of Environmental Defense. (Roxanne Khamsi, “California faces uphill battle on car emissions”, New Scientist, Sept. 22). EconBrowser (Sept. 24):
…the key question in my mind is not the extent to which reducing greenhouse emissions from vehicles may be a good idea, but rather whether, under previously existing U.S. law, it has been lawful to manufacture cars that emit carbon dioxide. I submit that it has, and if a judge somewhere now creatively determines that a company can be punished for such perfectly lawful behavior, then I fear that America is no longer a nation ruled by law, but rather ruled at the whim of whatever those currently wielding power happen to think might be a good idea.
Yet more: Brian Doherty, Reason “Hit and Run”, Sept. 21.