Victoria, British Columbia made the strongest statement yet toward a Canadian climate liability suitVictoria is one of several cities in western Canada considering a class-action suit against fossil fuel companies for climate-related damages. Photo credit: Chris Jackson/Getty Images
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By Marco Poggio

Western Canadian cities, led by Vancouver and Victoria, have taken significant steps in what could become litigation against the world’s major carbon producers aimed at recovering costs related to climate change.

Vancouver’s city council voted unanimously last week to declare a climate emergency and Victoria subsequently passed a resolution asking the regional government to explore a class-action lawsuit against the 20 largest fossil fuel companies. That resolution is the boldest initiative yet by a Canadian city to hold polluters accountable for climate change adaptation costs.

“We’re having to rebuild the seawalls on our waterfront, in several different sections. We’ll have to build it to higher standards in anticipation of more violent storms and rising sea levels,” said Ben Isitt, the Victoria city councilor who wrote the resolution, which passed the council, 8-1.

“We directed our staff to begin tracking the specific costs. We’re also seeking legal advice, with respects to litigation, to recover these costs and we’re proposing that the Union of BC municipalities explore initiating class-action proceedings to recover this costs.”

Vancouver has not publicly announced an intention to sue fossil fuel companies, but the move is in the works, a city councilor said.

“We’ve reached a bit of zenith here. There’s momentum within our political city council structure to make this move,” said Pete Fry, a member of Vancouver’s newly elected city council.

For the past two years, West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL), an environmental law advocacy group, has been working to mount a climate accountability campaign across western Canada. It has advised Victoria, Vancouver and 14 other municipalities to seek a class-action lawsuit against the 20 largests global fossil fuel companies responsible for carbon dioxide emissions.

“We’ve been calling for a class-action lawsuit going after adaptation costs — the cost of preparing communities for climate change,” said Andre Gage, a lawyer and campaigner with WCEL.

Fry said WCEL’s campaign would have been unthinkable in the recent past.

“Ten years ago, this would have been laughed out of town as a kind of hippy-dippy outrage. Ten years ago, there was a hard time even convincing folks that climate change was real, especially in a lot of these smaller towns,” Fry said. “That’s not even a conversation anymore. We all get that climate change is real. Now the conversation is around resilience management and adaptation.”

Gage said the class-action lawsuit Canadian cities are considering is similar to the ones filed in New York City, San Francisco, Oakland, Boulder and other cities and counties across the U.S.

According to a poll commissioned by WCEL in 2017, 63 percent of British Columbians “strongly or somewhat support litigation by their local government against fossil fuel companies to recover a portion of climate costs.”

WCEL began enlisting British Columbia governments to send climate accountability letters to the world’s major fossil fuel companies in January 2017.

Since then, 16 local governments across the province sent the letters. Of the 20 international companies that have received letters, only four responded in writing.

“They were polite, but either denied liability or balked the issue entirely,” Gage said.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers declined comment, saying it “does not speculate on discussions between municipalities and individual companies, nor can we comment on company-specific issues. CAPP does, however, work with all levels of government with all political affiliations.”

The proposed litigation focuses on recovering at least a share of the costs involved in re-designing communities to withstand the effect of weather events that are much more violent and unpredictable because of climate change.

“When we prepare our community and build new stormwater infrastructure or upgrading existing infrastructure, we now have to build for much larger weather events than we had previously,” Gage said, mentioning seawalls as an example.

The province of British Columbia, for example, required all coastal municipalities to build their own seawalls in anticipation of a 3.2-foot sea level rise by 2100, but with the sea level rising faster, cities will now have to spend money upgrading the barriers. A new study published this week showed that with Greenland’s ice sheet melting four times faster than expected, a complete meltdown could raise sea level more than 20 feet over the next century or so.

Like other many other regions around the world, British Columbia is faced with the challenges of an ever-warmer climate, including stronger rainstorms, flash floods, droughts and raging forest wildfires. In 2018, wildfires burned 4,700 square miles, surpassing the record set in 2017. Scientists predict even longer and more intense wildfire seasons in the future as global temperatures continue to rise.

The government of British Columbia estimated that the metropolitan area of Vancouver should be spending $9.5 billion between now and 2100, to address rising sea levels. Vancouver alone will face a cost of about $1 billion in climate change adaptation to deal with the projected sea level rise, and the city’s management is already planning what land to acquire and what kind of construction it will be required to provide safety against more powerful storms.

Fry said the big motivator behind the city’s latest resolution is the fact that climate change is beginning to affect taxpayers economically.

“We are actually seeing hard manifestations of costs related to climate change. It’s starting to affect our budgetary process, it’s starting to show up on the books,” he said.

Lisa Helps, mayor of Victoria, welcomed her city’s resolution as “a good start.”

“We’ve a got a strong climate leadership plan and we’re taking action,” Helps said. “When people started suing tobacco companies they probably got the same kind of reaction, like ‘why are you doing this, it makes no sense’ but then you can see that progress has been made.”

A study on the impact of climate change on Victoria shows that sea level rise alone will cost the city’s economy about $425,000 per day by 2100. Tourism, the city’s second-biggest source of the revenue, will be particularly impacted, the mayor said.

“People come from all over the world to visit the city. So, there are real costs and one of the things we’ve asked our staff to do is to start tracking what are the costs on a daily and yearly basis, of climate change in the city.”

Along the coastline, resiliency plans vary in cost and form.

Surrey, a city just south of Vancouver, went as far as proposing a planned retreat from Crescent Beach, a shoreline area prone to flooding, prompting considerable pushback from residents there. The local opposition caused the plan to be abandoned, Gage said, “but that’s the sort of cost that is quite reasonably being contemplated.”

The class action would be brought by one or both the regional government bodies, the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) and the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities (AVICC), which would serve as main plaintiffs representing all the communities that decide not to opt-out.

Vancouver’s government has not yet gone as far as Victoria’s in considering litigation, but city manager Sadhu Aufochs Johnston said the discussions on legal action are ongoing behind closed doors.

“At this time, we are exploring options. These discussions are in-camera, so at this time I am not able to elaborate,” Sadhu told Climate Liability News.

The office of Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart did not respond to several requests for comments, nor did most city council members.

Fry, who is one the three Green Party members in the city council, said the city is aware that litigation against oil companies would be long and expensive, and that Vancouver will likely have to foot the largest share of the legal bill.

“As the largest city in Western Canada and with the track record of leadership on this kind of issues, a lot of the heavy lifting will possibly fall onto our shoulders, so we need to mindful of that,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gage said he hoped Victoria’s motion in support of a class action would inspire cities in other Canadian provinces to follow suit.

One such ripple effect could be felt in Toronto, where Greenpeace Canada has been pushing Ontario officials to consider legal action against the fossil fuel industry.

“We are going to be approaching city council this year and urging them to taking steps toward a lawsuit. We would love to see them take a leadership role in this,” said Keith Stewart, a senior energy strategist for Greenpeace Canada.

Between 2000 and 2012, Toronto experienced three 100-year rain storms, which persuaded elected officials of the urgency surrounding climate change adaptation—and its costs.

“Toronto has been facing huge costs from flash floods and other extreme weather events,” Stewart said, adding that Canadians are starting to link recurring disasters to climate change and have begun considering who should pay for the costs.

“The class-action lawsuit would actually make this a lot easier for more communities to participate,” Stewart said. Local governments do not have the resources for their own lawsuits, he said, and people are more likely to participate in the decision-making process in small municipalities.

Perhaps most importantly, the efforts by WCEL have jump-started the debate over who pays for the climate damages that are becoming more immediate and more expensive.

“What we’ve done with the letters is to show that even communities that aren’t necessarily going to leap into litigation can start a conversation, and can start asking the important question about whether it is fair that their taxpayers pay 100 percent of the costs,” Gage said.

“There’s no community in the world that can afford to not have a conversation about how we’re going to pay for the cost of climate change. Any community in the world can have that conversation, whether they have the resources or desire to litigate or not.”

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