District court throws out global warming lawsuit brought against automakers under a public nuisance theory, ruling that the case presents a “political question” unsuitable for resolution by the courts
Status: District court dismissed lawsuit (No. 3:06-CV-05755-MJJ); State of California voluntarily dismissed its appeal in 2009
Discussion & Analysis: In September 2006, California sued six of the world’s biggest automakers—GM, Toyota, Ford, Honda, DaimlerChrysler, and Nissan—for their vehicles’ contributions to global warming and its effects on California. The complaint alleges that these companies’ automobiles emit 289 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases annually, making them among the world’s largest emitters and creating a public nuisance under both federal common law and state law. California cites an array of past and ongoing harms that it has suffered from global warming, including a reduced snow pack (a source of much-needed fresh water), raised sea levels along its coastline (causing saltwater intrusion into drinking-water supplies and beach erosion), increased ozone pollution in cities, heightened wildfire risks, increased flooding, negative effects on sensitive populations such as children and the elderly cause by increased smog and extreme heat events, and adverse impacts on animals and fish. The lawsuit seeks monetary damages for California’s injuries, for which the state has already spent millions of dollars.
The automaker defendants asked the district court to dismiss the case as posing a “political question” that cannot be addressed by the judiciary and must instead be left to the two political branches of government. Moreover, defendants argued, California’s public nuisance claims are either “displaced” (in the case of the federal claim) or “preempted” (the state claim) by two federal statutes: the Clean Air Act (CAA) and the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA). The district court dismissed the case under the political question doctrine without reaching the preemption and displacement arguments.
Closely tracking the approach and reasoning of a New York district court opinion recently issued in a similar case (Connecticut v. American Electric Power Company), the district court here found that the case presented a non-justiciable political question and declined to “inject itself into the global warming thicket.” The primary problem, the court determined, was that plaintiffs’ nuisance claim required the court “to make an initial decision as to what is unreasonable in the context of carbon dioxide emissions.” The court would be forced to balance the competing interests of reducing emissions, on one hand, and preserving economic and industrial development, on the other. Next, the court explained that plaintiffs’ claims for damages for defendants’ worldwide sale of automobiles sufficiently implicated Congress’s power over interstate commerce and the executive branch’s power over foreign policy, areas that the Constitution has committed to the political branches of the federal government. Finally, the court determined that it lacked “judicially discoverable or manageable standards” to resolve the case. Rejecting plaintiffs’ characterization of the lawsuit as presenting the types of issues that courts routinely resolve, the court states that it could identify no precedent to assist it with the legal and factual difficulties that would arise in allocating fault and damages, if any, under plaintiffs’ claims.
The court in California found its conclusions to be buttressed by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency. The district court interpreted Massachusetts to stand for the proposition that policy decisions concerning authority over and standards for carbon dioxide emissions lie with the political branches, not the judiciary. Additionally, the district court noted the Supreme Court’s reference to the states having “surrendered” to the federal government under the Constitution their right to engage in certain types of regulation—which the district court interpreted to mean that the regulation of carbon dioxide lies with the federal government, and specifically with the political branches.
Coupled with the New York district court’s recent dismissal of a lawsuit against power generation defendants in the Connecticut case, the district court’s ruling in favor of automakers in California illustrates the enormous difficulty faced by states seeking climate change remedies from industry under a public nuisance theory. Federal courts on both coasts have now ruled under the political question doctrine that the Constitution forbids them from even considering the claims of state plaintiffs injured by the effects of climate change.
Key Opinion: California v. General Motors Corp., 2007 WL 2726871 (N.D. Cal. 2007) (not reported).