California sues car manufacturers over emissions

Andrew Gumbel
Thursday 21 September 2006 00:00

The state of California, already in the forefront of the fight against global warming, filed an unprecedented lawsuit against six leading car manufacturers yesterday, arguing that exhaust fumes caused untold millions of dollars in damage to the state's weather, economy and public health.

The state attorney general's office is seeking unspecified damages from General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Honda, Toyota and Nissan because they "either knew or should have known the severe impact their vehicles would have on the health of the planet".

"Vehicle emissions are the single most rapidly growing source of the carbon emissions contributing to global warming, yet the federal government and the automakers have refused to act," California's attorney general, Bill Lockyer, said.

"It is time to hold these companies responsible for their contribution to the crisis."

As a legal strategy, the initiative was reminiscent of the suits filed by both private individuals and US states against the tobacco companies - suits that resulted in hundreds of millions of damages awarded in recognition of the impact of smoking on individual smokers and the budgets of public health facilities.

According to yesterday's suit, motor vehicles account for 30 per cent of California's emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Car companies, it added, were "among the world's largest contributors... to global warming. "Human-induced global warming," the suit added, "has, among other things, reduced California's snow pack [a vital source of fresh water], caused an earlier melting of the snow pack, raised sea levels along California's coastline, increased ozone pollution in urban areas, increased the threat of wildfires, and cost the state millions of dollars in assessing those impacts and preparing for the inevitable increase in those impacts..." Among the specific effects of global warming, it said, were "heat deaths, ground-level smog, disruption of water supply, flooding, more dramatic weather events because of the increased energy in the atmospheric system, disruption of and damage to forests and ecosystems, additional sea-level rise, beach erosion, inundation of low-lying coastal property, salt infiltration of fresh water drinking supplies, damage to and breaches of levees, and reduction of water availability from snow pack melt for sensitive habitat and species."

The car companies had no immediate response to the suit, which was filed in federal court in San Francisco. It came just a few weeks after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger reached a deal with the state legislature to mandate a 25 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions across California by the year 2020.

It also comes in response to a lawsuit filed by the car companies in federal court to try to avoid compliance with a 2005 California law tightening regulations on exhaust pipe emissions.

California has taken an aggressive legal posture on all aspects of the global warming question. Mr Lockyer is one of 12 state attorneys general suing the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington over its refusal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. He is also one of 10 state attorneys general suing the Bush administration over its failure to mandate improved fuel efficiency standards from four-wheel-drive vehicles and light trucks.

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