Vancouver estimates that it will pay more than a billion dollars to protect its residents from rising sea levels due to climate change in the coming years. That’s a lot money but the alternative is massive flooding in False Creek and other low-lying areas of the city.
And that’s just one climate impact. Not yet calculated are the bills for preventing future heat wave deaths, replanting trees after droughts, and redesigning storm-water systems to deal with atmospheric rivers and a myriad of other climate-related costs facing Vancouver.
No word yet on how the city and its taxpayers can afford to pay for that, but this coming Tuesday (July 19), Vancouver city council will be voting on a first step in a possible legal action against the companies most responsible for climate change: the oil and gas industry.
If this motion passes, the City of Vancouver would create a climate litigation fund in its draft 2023 budget, allocating $1 for each of the City’s 662,000 residents. The Sue Big Oil campaign—launched last month by West Coast Environmental Law and its allies—is calling on all local governments in B.C. to do the same, and then to work together to bring a class action lawsuit to recover a share of their climate costs from the world’s largest fossil-fuel companies.
The global oil and gas industry has known for decades that their products cause climate change, but chose to lobby against climate action and fund disinformation campaigns so that they could make billions more in profits. In the 1990s, despite desperate internal warnings from their scientists about the risks of catastrophic heat waves, floods, and other climate impacts, Exxon Mobil, Shell, and other fossil-fuel companies lobbied against climate action and actively worked to undermine public confidence in climate science.
In response to tentative global steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop alternatives to fossil fuels, the industry-based Global Climate Coalition decided that “victory will be achieved” when those advocating for climate action “on the basis of … science appear to be out of touch with reality”. The industry was largely successful as global action on climate change stalled and the blanket of fossil-fuel pollution and other greenhouse gases around the planet continued to grow while the companies made record profits.
Just five fossil fuel companies—Chevron, Shell, Saudi Aramco, Exxon, and BP—are collectively responsible for about 14 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions (through their operations and the products they sell). Over the past year, those five companies collectively earned the equivalent to $395 million each hour.
As Vancouver’s mayor and council vote on whether to set aside money to sue these companies, they need to remember that the alternative is that Vancouver taxpayers will be on the hook for all of the city’s climate costs. And that these global companies will continue to be rewarded financially when they choose to impede climate action.
Some councillors may be worried that this lawsuit won’t be successful, that despite good intentions it will waste taxpayer dollars. But people said the same thing when the ultimately successful lawsuits were launched against tobacco and asbestos companies, and environmentalists in the Netherlands have already won a similar lawsuit against Shell. Comparable lawsuits are underway in Germany, Switzerland, and the U.S.
Here in Canada, 28 law professors have written a letter saying that there is a solid basis for suing fossil-fuel companies in Canadian law, writing:
The logic is simple: those who profit from selling harmful products should bear their fair share of the cost of the harms caused by their products. Those suffering the harm, and the governments that represent them, should not bear the entire cost.
On Tuesday, Vancouver’s mayor and councillors will need to decide whether to join the growing movement to hold global fossil fuel companies accountable for climate costs. It’s a decision that fiscally and climate-responsible elected officials everywhere should be asking themselves as the costs of climate change rise.
If you agree that the global fossil fuel industry should pay their share of the harm caused by their products, please sign the Sue Big Oil Declaration and let your elected officials know that you expect them to protect you and your neighbours from the impacts—and costs—of climate change.