Public Nuisance Lawsuits Wrong Path for Cities

Sunset_at_Huntington_BeachFortunately, some public officials think municipal government and the courts shouldn’t be making environmental policy. That was the topic of discussion at a roundtable convened by the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project this summer. Held close to the one-year anniversary of the first public nuisance climate lawsuits popping up in California, the event featured local city mayors like me, as well as representatives from the California Manufacturers & Technology Association. Our message, public nuisance lawsuits are reckless and are economically dangerous for California.

There is no real foundation for these lawsuits at all. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously years ago that corporations cannot be sued over greenhouse gas emissions under federal common law. That’s just one of the reasons why Judge William Alsup of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed a public nuisance lawsuit brought against energy manufacturers by San Francisco and Oakland. Like other judges before him, Judge Alsup stated clearly that trying to label energy companies as public nuisances isn’t going to work.

The truth is these cases don’t make sense from a legal point of view. They try to take matters best decided by elected officials and put them in the hands of judges. The reason? Climate activists have failed over and over to get their way, so they’re trying an end around. In the process, they’re filing lawsuits that could cost real jobs.

Manufacturing supports countless jobs in communities like Huntington Beach. When we endanger those manufacturers, we threaten jobs and growth. We also send the message that the very businesses who are on the right side of climate change, the manufacturers who have worked hard to lower their greenhouse emissions, should be punished instead of praised. I believe we should be cooperating with manufacturers to continue our progress, not suing them.

There’s no secret why lawyers like these lawsuits. Records show that Hagens Berman, the firm behind the San Francisco and Oakland public nuisance lawsuit, would have raked in 23.5 percent of the payout to those cities had Judge Alsup not thrown out the lawsuit. San Francisco and Oakland officials thought they could collect millions for their city budgets.

Huntington Beach has no plans to go down the public nuisance path. We understand the value of a healthy economy and of working alongside manufacturers to meet our goals. We also understand that public nuisance lawsuits could be aimed at anyone who uses fossil fuels, including a municipal government like ours.

We need to leave environmental policy to Congress. Cities across California shouldn’t be in the business of setting global climate policy. That’s not our job. Mayors and other local officials should focus on the work that keeps their communities growing and remain committed to fighting anything, including these lawsuits, that endangers the jobs of the people who elect them.

Mike Posey is the mayor of Huntington Beach