SAN FRANCISCO — A federal judge on Monday tossed out a lawsuit filed by California that sought to hold the world's six largest automakers accountable for their contribution to global warming.
In its lawsuit filed last year, California blamed the auto industry for millions of dollars it expects to spend on repairing damage from global-warming induced floods and other natural disasters.
But District Judge Martin Jenkins in San Francisco handed California Attorney General Jerry Brown's environmental crusade a stinging rebuke when he ruled that it was impossible to determine to what extent automakers are responsible for global-warming damages in California. Many culprits, including other industries and even natural sources, are responsible for emitting carbon dioxide.
"The court is left without guidance in determining what is an unreasonable contribution to the sum of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere, or in determining who should bear the costs associated with global climate change that admittedly result from multiple sources around the globe," Jenkins wrote.
The judge also ruled that keeping the lawsuit alive would threaten the country's foreign policy position.
Judge: Up to lawmakers
The Bush administration has consistently opposed any international treaty — including the 1997 Kyoto Protocol — that would impose cuts on greenhouse gases.
"President George W. Bush opposes the protocol because it exempts developing nations who are major emitters, fails to address two major pollutants, and would have a negative economic impact on the United States," Jenkins wrote in his 24-page decision. To rule in favor of California would undermine the administration's position, Jenkins said.
Jenkins said it's up to lawmakers, rather than judges, to determine how responsible automakers are for global warming problems.
Jenkins ruled that a court "injecting itself into the global warming thicket at this juncture would require an initial policy determination of the type reserved for the political branches of government."
Ted Boutrous, who represented the automakers, said that the global warming issue "is very complicated and this court said it's best left to national lawmakers to determine policy. We are pleased with the ruling."
The state sued Chrysler Motor Corp., Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and the U.S. subsidiaries of Japan's biggest manufacturers, Honda North America, Nissan North America and Toyota Motor North America.
Michigan's attorney general also filed court papers backing the automakers, making many of the same arguments that Jenkins ultimately adopted.
State mulls appeal
Michigan said its economy would be severely crippled if automakers were forced to pay damages to California for contributing to global warming. Michigan said such policy decisions should be left for federal lawmakers.
The lawsuit was originally filed by former California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who was elected state treasurer in November 2006. Brown took over the lawsuit after his election as attorney general and he has made fighting global warming a priority.
Brown has successfully sued San Bernardino County to add a carbon emissions reduction scheme in its revised general plan. Last week, he wrested a $10 million agreement from oil giant ConocoPhillips Co. to reduce or offset its carbon output. Brown also has sent threatening letters to about a dozen state agencies demanding they take climate change into account when making development plans.
"We need to study this closely," said Deputy Attorney General Ken Alex, who argued the state's case. "We will give serious consideration to an appeal."
Many scientists blame the buildup of carbon dioxide and other industrial gases for heating the atmosphere like a greenhouse.
While carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring gas, amounts of it have been increasing sharply since the beginning of the industrial age. It is produced by fossil fuels burned in manufacturing plants, motor vehicles and power plants.
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