In British Columbia, a new front in the movement to hold fossil fuel producers responsible for the costs of climate change may be gaining a foothold.
Four communities in Canada’s westernmost province have sent letters to 20 of the world’s largest oil and gas companies asking them to pay for the rising costs the cities face. The letters contend that because the companies have profited richly from the burning of fossil fuels, they should be responsible for the cost of preparing for and recovering from the impacts, including increasingly severe wildfires, sea level rise and more frequent drought.
So far, the city councils of Victoria, Colwood, the District of Highlands the District of Saanich have voted to send letters.
Saanich city councillor Fred Haynes described his district’s vote as “a call for companies that are making significant profits in the fossil fuel industry to be aware that there is a climate responsibility.”
“Now the question is how much they should pay,” he added.
The communities represent a small fraction of British Columbia’s local governments, acknowledged Andrew Gage, staff lawyer for West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL), a nonprofit that has spearheaded the effort. WCEL, working with a coalition of more than 50 community groups, contacted British Columbia municipalities in January and asked them to consider holding major oil and gas firms responsible for the costs of dealing with climate change.
The quick succession of positive votes has encouraged Gage, he said, as well as the fact that Victoria, Vancouver Island’s provincial capital, has joined the effort. Three island governments have voted against sending the letter, according to Gage, while about 10 others are considering it.
While WCEL has raised the possibility that municipalities could join in a future lawsuit against the firms over climate change, “I’ve made very clear in my submissions to local governments that by sending a letter, they are not committing themselves to bring a class action in any way,” said Gage.
Rather, “they are making a statement about the morality of it, and asking in a very reasonable way that there would be a sharing of costs.”
Victoria is working on an aggressive climate action plan, said city councillor Jeremy Loveday, which will include slashing carbon emissions 80 percent and transitioning most of the city’s energy sources to renewables by 2050.
“It is going to take a lot of hard work and a lot of tough decisions, and it’s not going to be cheap,” Loveday said. “I don’t think local communities can afford to take on this cost alone, and I don’t think we can afford not to do it. So in my opinion, the companies that have profited greatly off of the destruction of our planet and the coming climate catastrophe should be at the table to pay for climate mitigation and climate adaption that cities are going to have to take on in the coming months and years.”
Highlands city councillor Ann Baird said her municipality is dominated by forests set on rugged, hilly terrain. “So we’re really being impacted by the longer, hotter, drier summers in that our soils are becoming drier, and a number of our trees are dying, and so we’re much more prone to fires that just simply can’t be put out,” she said.
More than 1,000 fires have burned this year in British Columbia, making 2017 the worst wildfire season on record. More than two million acres of forest burned and the cost to for combat them exceeds $245 million.
Fighting these extremely intense fires has forced Highlands, which has a population of only about 2,200, to increase the budget for its fire department, according to Baird, and spend more on educating homeowners about lowering their fire risks. These and other costs are likely to continue rising, she said.
Sending the letter is not going to result in an influx of corporate cash to cover those expenses, Baird said. “Primarily it starts to increase the conversation about risk with climate change, and that taxpayers are going to be footing the bill.”
Municipalities like Highlands are also thinking about reducing their own vulnerability to climate-related lawsuits. “By speaking to this, and actually creating risk management plans, and creating policies about what our risks are, and saying what we can and cannot do, we actually reduce our legal liability, that our residents could actually sue the district of Highland for not acting on climate change,” said Baird.
Harvard climate economist Gernot Wagner, co-author of the 2015 book “Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet,” said the letter campaign is part of a trend of grassroots efforts to speed up action on climate change, such as the global movement pressuring universities, pension funds, and other institutions to shed fossil fuel investments.
“Every one of these initiatives is important in and of itself. None provides the one answer, but each should be part of the overall conversation,” Wagner said. “I would not go so far as to say it’s a solution, but beggars can’t be choosers. In so many ways it is so late to be doing something serious about climate change. For better or worse, we have to try it all.”
Because local governments are are at the forefront of coping with the effects of hotter temperatures, sea level rise, and other impacts of climate change, Wagner said, they are also in the vanguard of assessing legal options for making fossil fuel companies pay for the damages. San Francisco and Oakland sued five major oil firms in September over climate change impacts, following three other suits from California communities against a larger group of fossil fuel companies. Canadian communities could eventually take similar actions, he said.
“In a U.S. example, the federal government right now, at least the occupants of the White House, might be denying the science. The governor of Florida might be denying the science, as he currently is,” said Wagner. “But the Republican mayor of Miami certainly isn’t.”