Could B.C. municipalities sue fossil fuel companies for climate costs?
West Coast Environmental Law encourages cities to follow San Francisco’s lead and go after polluters in court to help pay for ballooning infrastructure costs.
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The next battle against climate change could be fought in British Columbia courtrooms.
West Coast Environmental Law has been encouraging municipalities to sign onto a class-action lawsuit against some of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies to pay for skyrocketing local costs associated with climate change.
Lawyer Andrew Gage, staff counsel at the organization, says now is the time for cities to assert their rights and challenge polluters to pay for their “fair share” through the courts.
“It’s a question of who should be paying for climate change?” Gage told Metro.
“The province estimates that the municipalities of Metro Vancouver should be spending $9.5 billion between now and 2100 to deal with rising sea levels.
“Just last October, the City of Vancouver itself debated whether or not to be looking at a $800 million storm surge protector for False Creek or to increase seawalls for $300- to $400-million. Those are huge expenses and they’re already being debated.
“If taxpayers really have to pay all of that in all communities across Canada and the industry who played a major role in causing this isn’t paying anything beyond the tax dollars any business pays, we have to wonder if that’s sustainable. That seems like a very fundamental question that we need answered.”
It’s a question already being asked of judges elsewhere.
In September, the cities of San Francisco and Oakland both filed lawsuits against Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell — the five largest investor-owned producers of fossil fuels — in an effort to hold them responsible “for the costs of sea walls and other infrastructure necessary to protect San Francisco and Oakland from ongoing and future consequences of climate change and sea level rise caused by the companies’ production of massive amounts of fossil fuels.”
Gage believes it is inevitable courts in Canada will be asked to grapple with such questions.
“I wouldn’t say at this point we have a plaintiff lined up and ready to go or anything like that. But it is something we seriously believe local B.C. governments should do, and should do sooner rather than later,” said Gage.
“At the end of the day, we need to have these legal questions sorted or else municipalities and taxpayers will end up paying 100 per cent of the costs of climate change.”
While no B.C. communities have stepped up to challenge a polluter in court yet, four Vancouver Island municipalities, including Victoria, have agreed to send “climate accountability” letters to the world’s Top 20 fossil fuel companies asking them to pay their share of local climate costs.
“We expect your industry to take cradle to grave responsibility for your product — and that starts by taking responsibility for its effects in the atmosphere and the resulting harm to communities,” reads the District of Highlands’ letter to the companies.
While separate from its pursuit for a class-action lawsuit, West Coast Environmental Law campaigner Anjali Appadurai said the letters are an important first step for communities asserting their right to demand accountability.
“We’re starting to realize there is an industry that has never actually paid the full costs of the production and the burning of its products.
“They only pay until a certain point and the externalities of that production fall upon climate-impacted communities,” Appadurai said.
“Now we’re in this new terrain where there are all these costs that are rising and there’s an open question about how to share the burden of those costs.”
Legally and socially, West Coast Environmental Law says the growing calls for “climate accountability” echoes the wave of successful litigate against tobacco companies.
“You had an industry that was not only causing harm but almost everybody believed that the smoker was entirely to blame,” said Gage.
“That’s why the industry was able to say for decades, ‘We’ll never settle, we’ve never lost a lawsuit’.
“And then there was a dramatic change in the way we viewed that industry and its role in causing harm. It was social, as well as legal. I believe that shift will happen in relation to fossil fuel companies.”