Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Fighting climate change, one lawsuit at a time

International Herald Tribune: A spate of pending cases in the United States and Europe could set precedents for big judgments against companies that emit greenhouse gases.

Over the past two decades, tobacco companies and asbestos makers have paid billions of dollars in liabilities for harming consumers with cigarettes and insulation. Now companies responsible for emitting greenhouse gases may face similarly costly legal bills for contributing to dangerous levels of global warming.

Lawyers expect courts in the United States and Europe to rule on a spate of cases in coming months and years that could establish precedents for big payouts and force wrenching changes on businesses.

The size of damages, said William Holmes, a partner with the law firm Stoel Rives in Portland, Oregon, "could reach the same level as in the tobacco and asbestos cases, and if anything they could be even higher."

…In the United States, there are currently about a dozen cases involving demands for tighter regulation and claims for damages. Among them is a case brought by property owners in Mississippi against oil and coal companies they accuse of playing a role in Hurricane Katrina, which struck the region with devastating consequences in August 2005.…

In another closely watched case, a former California attorney general, Bill Lockyer, last year sued General Motors, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Toyota, Honda and Nissan for making automobiles that emit millions of tons of greenhouse gases annually….

Peter Roderick, a co-director of the Climate Justice Program in London, said he expected future cases to be brought by owners of businesses like Alpine ski resorts, which are threatened by dramatic reductions in snow pack as a result of global warming. But he said he expected the first big European case to involve families whose relatives died in a ferocious heat wave that baked countries including France during August 2003.

…Lawyers said a separate complaint, filed in May against Volkswagen by the campaign group GermanWatch, is a forerunner of some of the arguments Sherpa could make in its case. GermanWatch contends that Volkswagen has damaged the environment by expanding its range of luxury cars that pollute more heavily, and by conducting lobbying campaigns against legislation to protect the climate…

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