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Suing automakers won't save the planet


Many people are concerned about global warming and the impact it may have on life as we know it. Reports of increased levels of greenhouse gases and climate changes already taking place are troubling, but what can be done about it? California Attorney General Bill Lockyer last week unveiled one idea: sue automakers.

Yes, California's top lawyer filed suit against six of the largest auto manufacturers in the United States, alleging that the companies' vehicles have created a public nuisance by contributing to global warming.

The attorney general argues that California has spent millions of dollars to address the effects of global warming and that the cost will escalate as long as the problem continues. Mr. Lockyer's lawsuit seeks to hold the companies jointly and severally liable for unspecified monetary damages, attorneys' fees and costs. Whatever that amount turns out to be is beside the point, really. Imagine the flood of litigation that will result--against virtually any company deemed to contribute to global warming--if this lawsuit is upheld.

There are sound reasons to try to reduce emissions that may speed warming of Earth's atmosphere, accelerate melting of glaciers and ice sheets, and foster conditions that favor stronger windstorms and greater flooding. So why not promote regulations to address this? Is it really necessary to take to court businesses whose products are a linchpin of the national economy?

Consider the following facts:

  • California already has some of the strictest auto emissions standards in the nation.

  • The automakers Mr. Lockyer is suing--General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler Corp., Honda North America Inc., Toyota Motor North America Inc. and Nissan North America Inc.--face stiff challenges in selling cars and meeting their benefit obligations to employees and retirees. Ford, for example, this month announced it will lay off nearly one-third of its workforce to reduce the company's operating costs. Ford isn't doing this to be unkind; it views the layoffs as vital to its survival.

  • California and other states in April sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from power plants.

  • Nine state attorneys general, including Mr. Lockyer, in July 2004 sued five U.S. power plant operators for carbon dioxide emissions.

  • California's general election is Nov. 7, and Bill Lockyer is a candidate for state treasurer.

It's easy to dismiss Mr. Lockyer's recent lawsuit as a political gambit, but this suit has significant public policy implications. Greenhouse gas emissions, as even Mr. Lockyer's suit acknowledges, go well beyond California's borders. There's a good reason the problem is called global warming.

Businesses need to take seriously the risks that global warming poses. More frequent climatic events, such as droughts, floods and more severe hurricanes, will increase not only the risk of loss of life and property but also business interruption. If global warming leads to more storms such as Hurricane Katrina, the world is in big trouble.

From a legal perspective, if it's possible to recover costs for climate change from automakers, what businesses would not be liable? Insurers and reinsurers expend huge amounts of capital to pay for losses from windstorms and other catastrophes. Using Mr. Lockyer's logic, underwriters could cease to insure businesses that may be liable for contributing to global warming. Or they could subrogate windstorm claims to recover costs.

Where would such litigation end? Driving defendant companies into bankruptcy might halt their carbon dioxide emissions, but that also would deprive California and other states of economic benefits.

The courts should be a last resort for relief, not the first stop in an effort to safeguard the environment, noble as that is.