Public Nuisance Lawsuits Could Compound Cloudy California Economic Forecast

Government regulationToday, the sun is shining on the California economy, with unemployment at a record low. Our state is the fifth largest economy in the world with more billionaires than anywhere else in the country. State government is also doing well. Governor Brown inherited a $26 billion deficit upon entering office. Today, the state has a surplus of nearly $16 billion. This is good for businesses and good for the California families they support.

But there’s no guarantee those sunny days will last. In fact, many economists predict the dark clouds of recession in California’s future. Recessions are always particularly troubling for California because of our high reliance on wealthy taxpayers for revenue. Austerity could be on the way, as well as tough times for California businesses in a slower economy.

Another storm cloud looms on California’s horizon as well. California cities are increasingly considering filing so-called “public nuisance” lawsuits against manufacturers, alleging that manufacturers contribute to climate change and are at least partially responsible for sea level rise and wildfires. High-profile cases brought by San Francisco and Oakland have already been dismissed, as has a lawsuit brought by New York City. However, mayors and public officials in other California municipalities and in states like New York, Colorado, Rhode Island, Maryland and Washington continue to threaten manufacturers with lawsuits labeling them as public nuisances, seeking to both make political statements and score financial paydays.

California’s major cases aren’t out of the woods yet either. San Francisco and Oakland are appealing United States District Judge William Alsup’s dismissal of the case, with the cities’ opening brief due to the Ninth Circuit by December 10. Judge Alsup ruled, as did his counterpart in New York City’s case, that the problem of climate change is best addressed by the legislative and executive branches.

Fortunately, a number of California mayors are standing firm against these misguided lawsuits. Those include Irvine Mayor Don Wagner, who has publicly opposed climate litigation and noted that the courts are poor choices for handling climate policy decisions. Wagner has been joined by Huntington Beach Mayor Mike Posey, who warned in California Political Review that public nuisance lawsuits could eventually target municipal governments themselves and argued that working alongside manufacturers, not suing them, is the best way to achieve economic goals and job growth. La Habra Mayor Tim Shaw echoed this idea, stating that municipalities should refrain from filing frivolous climate lawsuits since mayors need to make it easier, not harder, for businesses to create more jobs.

These mayors and others, of course, have real reason for concern. California is hemorrhaging both people and businesses already. A November U.S. Census Bureau report says the Golden State has had 142,932 more residents exit to live in other states than people arriving from other states. This outflow is 11% higher than in 2015 and was second nationally only behind the New York and New Jersey area. Businesses are exiting too. Carl’s Jr., a longtime California icon, has relocated to Nashville. Toyota said goodbye to Torrance and will completely relocate its U.S. headquarters to Dallas in the coming weeks. Joining Toyota in Dallas is Jacobs Engineering Group, which is moving its $6.3 billion firm from Pasadena. Add to that growing list Nissan North America, Jamba Juice, Numira Biosciences, Chevron and Kubota Tractor and it’s easy to see why continuing to target manufacturers with lawsuits is a losing choice for the California economy.

Rather than running to the courthouse in pursuit of a failed legal strategy that will do nothing to help the environment, public officials should join with manufacturers in addressing the problem of climate change. This approach is already producing results. For example, Bloomberg reported last year that the five biggest energy manufacturers reduced their emissions by an average of 13% between 2010 and 2015, outpacing the U.S.’s 4.9% reduction over the same time span. Overall, manufacturers have reduced their emissions by 10% while increasing their overall value to the economy by 19% over the last decade. That progress is commendable.

Manufacturing is too critical to the California economy to continue threatening it. More than 10% of the state’s total economic output and about one in twelve workers depends on California’s $300 billion plus manufacturing sector. With businesses already fleeing high taxes and a less-than-welcoming business environment, the time is now to work toward productive solutions that both help the environment and protect manufacturing jobs. If California wants to avoid a gloomy economic future, local leaders must say no to public nuisance lawsuits that jeopardize manufacturers and the jobs they provide to hard-working Californians.

Whit Peterson is Director of Government Affairs, Greater Irvine Chamber