Paris (AFP) Sep 21, 2006
To the loud cheers of environmentalists, the biggest case in the new but fast-growing area of climate-change litigation is now under way, although a fog of uncertainty surrounds the outcome. On Thursday, the state of California slapped a lawsuit against the Big Six automakers -- General Motors, Toyota, Ford, Honda, Chrysler and Nissan -- to demand compensation for damage inflicted by their vehicles' greenhouse-gas emissions.
California says it is having to spend a fortune to deal with shrinking snow cover on the Sierra Nevada mountains, raised sea levels, the increasing threat of forest fires and many other effects from man-made global warming.
It is by far the biggest and most adventurous thrust in climate-change litigation.
Just six years ago, anyone who talked about sueing a carmaker, oil company, power company or government to demand compensation for the damage to the climate inflicted by their product or policies would have prompted scoffs or blank stares.
Then came the first pioneering lawsuit, followed by others that have progressively grown in scope.
Greens see a tempting parallel with asbestos and tobacco litigation, which were initially treated as a joke but eventually snowballed into settlements worth hundreds of billions of dollars and capable of destroying a large corporation.
Even though the California lawsuit kicked off in a big media glare, the big question is whether it, like the other cases still being mulled, will get anywhere.
Asked as to whether it would succeed, Roda Verheyen, a lawyer with a German organisation, Climate Justice Programme, which supports climate-change litigation, said "That's a very good question."
"There's never been a case like this one," she said. "It will set legal precedent. It's the most significant piece of climate-change litigation that has ever been brought."
Environmental lawsuits that succeed are traditionally those that can pinpoint an unidentifiable culprit who caused a specific problem, such as a toxic spill in a river or acid rain from smoke-spewing power plants, she said.
In this case, the first question will be jurisdiction: whether a court can be competent to rule on a pollution whose sources are global, rather than local or national.
And if it does have jurisdiction, how then should it apportion blame to the carmakers? After all, other industries, not to mention consumers and the state of California itself, also bear direct or indirect responsibility for contributing to global warming and these factors are likely to bear in the argument.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, whose members are already locked in legal battle with California over exhaust emissions standards, described the state's new litigation as a "nuisance suit."
The organisation drew a comparison with a lawsuit brought by a group of northeastern US states against local power companies. That suit was dismissed by a federal court in New York and has now gone to appeal.
French expert Jean-Marc Jancovici, though, noted the early stages of tobacco litigation, which likewise fell at the key hurdle of linking a victim's cancer to smoking or to a particular brand of cigarette.
The litigation eventually succeeded after more and more scientific evidence emerged which strengthened the cancer-smoking link and tobacco companies were found to have known about the danger but covered it up.
Thus if a big fossil-fuel polluter knew it was damaging the environment but persisted in the face of this knowledge or denied it, it too could one day be exposed to a crippling class-action suit.
"Corporations would be well advised to bear in mind the principle of the polluter pays," said Jancovici, a professor at the prestigious Polytechnique School in Paris. "It would be very foolish to do nothing."
California and the northeastern US states have been in the vanguard of US efforts to tackle greenhouse-gas emissions with mandatory or legal measures.
They stepped into the void left by President George W. Bush's abandonment in 2001 of the UN's Kyoto Protocol, which legally requires industrialised nations to cut emissions of these perilous carbon gases.
Among other US lawsuits, an Inuit group is taking the federal government to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights for damage to the Arctic and a dozen US states and green organisations are trying to force the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to define carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
Cases are pending in Australia and New Zealand requesting that emitters stop their greenhouse-gas pollution, although compensation is not involved, and a case is before the courts in Germany about the role of the German export-credit agency in projects that add to climate change.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the trade group representing global automakers in the United States called the action a "nuisance" lawsuit.
"Automakers are already building cleaner, more fuel-efficient vehicles, and every single auto sold in California is approved by the State of California before it goes to the dealer's lot," the Alliance said in a statement.
"Today's autos are 99 percent cleaner than a generation ago," it added. "Automakers are now selling more than 45 models of alternative fuel autos, including hybrids, ethanol-capable vehicles and clean diesel autos, and many more models are in development for future introduction."
California's attorney general on Wednesday said the federal government and automakers had failed to act in response to the crisis of global warming which is fueled by vehicle emissions.
"Global warming is causing significant harm to California's environment, economy, agriculture and public health. The impacts are already costing millions of dollars, and the price tag is increasing," Attorney General Bill Lockyer said.
The US Chamber of Commerce on Thursday accused Lockyer of filing the suit for his own political gain.
"The election year decision to file a lawsuit against automobile manufacturers for causing global warming by a politician seeking office is a classic case of over-reaching by a state attorney general," US Chamber Institute for Legal Reform President Lisa Rickard said in a statement.
"At a time when the industry is looking for ways to cut emissions and promote alternative fuels, to single out the automobile companies for legal action in this way is the epitome of a frivolous lawsuit."
The companies named in the complaint are the Chrysler Motors Corporation, an arm of DaimlerChrysler based in Germany; General Motors Corporation; Ford Motor Company; and the North American subsidiaries of Japanese carmakers Honda Motor, Nissan Motor and Toyota Motor.
These carmakers are "among the world's largest contributors to global warming and the adverse impacts on California," the suit charges.
The suit is the first of its kind seeking to hold manufacturers liable for damages allegedly caused by greenhouse gases produced by their vehicles.
California, the richest and most populous US state, has more than 35 million people and some 32 million registered vehicles. The biggest metropolitan area, Los Angeles, usually tops the list of the most polluted US cities.
Authorities in California, led by Republican actor-turned-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, have broken with US President George W. Bush on environmental issues. Schwarzenegger has said he will sign greenhouse gas-reducing legislation making California the first US state to commit to adhering to the Kyoto Protocol.
The Kyoto Protocol sets out measures for tackling greenhouse gas pollution.
The governor was set to sign this month a landmark bill to cap greenhouse gas emissions, making California the first US state to limit carbon dioxide and other gases accused of contributing to global warming.
Source: Agence France-Presse
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OPEC Urges Use Of Technology To Reduce Carbon Emissions
Riyadh (AFP) Sep 21, 2006
OPEC called Thursday for the use of advanced technology that reduces carbon dioxide emissions to ensure a cleaner environment and the safe use of oil and natural gas to foster global development. "There is a need to focus on technological options that allow the continued use of oil in a carbon-constrained world," OPEC director of research Hasan Qabazard told an EU-OPEC roundtable meeting in Riyadh.
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