Jessica Clogg and Christianne Wilhelmson: Taking on Big Oil can protect Vancouver’s taxpayers from climate change

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      By Jessica Clogg and Christianne Wilhelmson

      Each year, pollution from burning fossil fuels adds to emissions, forming a heat-trapping blanket around the world, further disrupting global weather patterns, melting the polar ice caps, and acidifying the oceans. Vancouver is already feeling the global climate crisis. A new generation of kids is growing up with smoke from wildfires, summer droughts and more intense storms as regular occurrences.

      The City of Vancouver—and its taxpayers—face a rising tide of climate costs. The city has already spent tens of millions of dollars upgrading city storm drains to deal with extreme rain, cleaning up city parks and roads after storms, replanting trees killed by drought, and dealing with a host of other climate impacts.

      What’s coming next will make those costs look like small change. To pick just one example, city staff estimate that Vancouver will need to spend $1 billion between now and 2100 to prevent rising sea levels from flooding large areas of the city.

      This week Vancouver city council will consider a motion tabled by councillors Jean Swanson and Christine Boyle pointing out that it is unfair for Vancouver taxpayers to shoulder this financial burden alone; global oil, gas, and coal companies must share some of those costs. The councillors join a growing chorus of communities around the world—including Port Moody, Burnaby and West Vancouver, as well as 19 other B.C. communities—that are calling for fossil fuel companies to take responsibility for the harm caused by their products.

      Why is the motion important?

      Vancouver taxpayers cannot afford for the city to assume that they will pay 100 percent of the costs of climate change. A responsible local government needs to look to the companies that have benefited financially from climate change to pay a share of those costs.

      ExxonMobil built this huge refinery in the Belgian city of Antwerp.
      Alf van Beem

      According to a 2017 poll conducted by Justason Market Intelligence, 87 percent of Lower Mainland residents strongly or somewhat support fossil fuel companies paying a share of the costs of climate change.

      As well, as more and more communities ask fossil fuel companies to help out with local climate costs, the impact can be global. Both legally and morally, Vancouver has grounds to demand accountability not just from companies operating in B.C., but from the global companies that have made massive contributions to climate change.

      If the financial statements of the big oil and gas companies in Texas, Dubai, and Calgary treat climate change as someone else’s problem, then those companies, their investors, and ultimately world governments will continue to make poor decisions—decisions that stand in the way of solving climate change. Rex Tillerson, when he was CEO of ExxonMobil, described climate change as an “engineering problem” to be solved (and paid for) by communities affected by climate change, while his company blithely continued to sell oil, gas, and coal.

      The oil and gas companies have passed the buck for decades. In 1968, the American Petroleum Institute (API) commissioned a comprehensive review of climate science, which confirmed that fossil fuel pollution was even then irrevocably altering the global atmosphere and recommended that the fossil fuel industry work to find cleaner energy options.

      Armed with this information—and with the assumption that someone else would pay if that happened—corporate CEOs chose to expand their oil, gas, and coal production. In the decades that followed, they:

      • lobbied aggressively against action on climate change;
      • bought up and filed patents on renewable energy and low emissions vehicles that they did not develop;
      • and funded public relations campaigns to portray those advocating for climate action on the basis of the science as (in the words of a 1998 API memo) “out of touch with reality”.

      Meanwhile, the use of “cheap” fossil fuel-based energy expanded and global greenhouse gas emissions rose dramatically. According to a peer-reviewed study by scientist Richard Heede, just 90 entities are responsible, through their operations and products, for almost two-thirds of the human-caused greenhouse gas emissions in the global atmosphere today.

      If we want to solve climate change, we all need to do our part. Vancouver needs to deliver on its bold promises to respond to climate change as an emergency and to reduce its GHG emissions by 50 percent by 2030. But fossil fuel companies need to have an incentive to stop delaying climate action—and instead bring their considerable resources and expertise to the table to help the world transition rapidly toward a sustainable future. We need true energy companies—smart, forward-looking, and accountable energy companies.

      The motion before Vancouver council is about making sure we are able to protect our communities from huge and unpredictable future climate change impacts and costs. Even more fundamentally, however, it is about ensuring that global fossil fuel companies—and their investors and the governments that support them—start including the risks of climate change in their financial calculations and business decisions. That’s absolutely essential if we want to solve climate change.