Vancouver's city council voted to support a law that would make it easier for cities to sue fossil fuel companies for climate damagesVancouver's city council voted to support a liability law that would make it easier for cities to sue fossil fuel companies for climate damages. Photo credit: George Rose/Getty Images

By Karen Savage

Vancouver and Richmond are the latest Canadian cities to ask the government of British Columbia to enact a law that would help municipalities hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate change.

Richmond’s city council voted on Monday to ask British Columbia Premier John Horgan to enact the legislation, called the Liability for Climate-Related Harms Act. On Thursday, the Vancouver city council passed a similar motion. Both cities also voted to ask the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) to make a similar request to the premier.

The proposed legislation would establish clear legal rules of liability for harm to communities caused by climate change, similar to the Tobacco Damages Recovery Act, which has helped communities pursue legal action against tobacco manufacturers to recover health care costs caused by their products. It is thought that Horgan will introduce the act, which must then be approved by the provincial government, if there is sufficient public support. Similar legislation was proposed by lawmakers in Ontario earlier this year. 

“Such legislation is ‘essential both to protect BC taxpayers against rising costs from climate-related impacts and to give global fossil fuel companies incentives to transition from fossil fuels and join the fight against climate change,’” wrote Richmond Mayor Malcolm D. Brodie in the city’s letter to the premier. He said climate change is the city’s biggest threat.

Vancouver and Richmond will also write letters to the world’s largest carbon polluters asking them to take responsibility for the harm caused by their products and to adjust their business models to minimize future harm to the climate. The cities will join more than 20 other British Columbia municipalities that have written similar letters. The cities asked the companies to pay some of the costs to prepare their communities for the impacts of climate change.

West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL), an environmental law advocacy group, is coordinating the campaign. WCEL, along with more than 50 local organizations, sent a letter to Horgan last year demanding the government implement the proposed legislation.

In that letter, WCEL and the organizations said that while the fossil fuel companies could be sued under existing law, clarifying the legal rules for liability would speed the process. 

“Enacting a liability for climate-related harms act may clarify the legal rules more quickly and cheaply than could occur through protracted litigation, as well as giving the public’s representatives an important opportunity to investigate and quantify the costs of climate change and to discuss the role of the fossil fuel industry in paying for those costs,” the organizations wrote in the letter, adding that the act could ensure companies pay for damage done to the climate, even when those companies are located outside the province.

Critics say the effort to hold tobacco companies accountable for health-related costs has moved far too slow. Years after litigation first began, tobacco companies have yet to be held accountable. Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps initially supported the proposed legislation, but has since backpedaled.

“Why spend time suing fossil fuel companies? If the tobacco lawsuits are any indication, it’s going to take 20 years just to officially get to court,” Helps told CBC last week. She now favors ending subsidies to fossil fuel companies and redirecting the funding so local governments can prepare for climate change.

Others, including 28 law professors from across Canada, say litigation may be necessary to protect municipalities from shouldering the costs. 

“Such a case would be novel in the same way that the first court cases demanding recognition of indigenous rights or gay marriage, or claiming compensation against tobacco or asbestos companies, were novel. Many members of the legal community viewed such cases as impossible when they were first proposed, and yet they ultimately proved successful,” said the law professors in an open letter sent to Vancouver, Richmond and other municipalities on Monday.

Vancouver’s motion, which was introduced by councilors Jean Swanson and Christine Boyle, also instructs the mayor to explore partnering with other British Columbia municipalities to share legal strategies for recovering climate-related costs caused by the companies’ products. 

“Right now those costs are being paid 100 percent by taxpayers and the conversation that’s happening in other places that echo this motion is that those costs should be shared in some way by the fossil fuel companies,” Boyle said.

Boyle pointed to a 2017 survey that showed 87 percent of Lower Mainland residents agreed that those costs should be shared by the fossil fuel companies.

“This motion is about sending a signal that fossil fuel companies and their investors need to incorporate the true costs of climate change into their business decisions so that they can be part of making decisions that help build a better future,” she said. 

Vancouver is already experiencing sea level rise, rising temperatures and increased extreme weather events, all driven by climate change. The cost to protect the city’s more than 600,000 residents and infrastructure is projected to run into the tens of billions.

The city council voted unanimously to declare a climate emergency in January and released a pair of reports in April outlining its plans to respond to the emergency. That includes aligning its climate action with goals of the Paris Agreement and announcing a program to reduce carbon emissions from buildings.

“Given the world’s increasingly urbanized population is on the front lines of the fight against climate change, the world’s urban population will disproportionately experience the effects of global warming,” Vancouver said in its emergency response report.

Like Vancouver, Richmond has also declared a climate emergency.

It is projected that it will cost hundreds of millions to update Richmond’s dikes and flood protection systems, which are currently valued at approximately $1.5 billion.

“Local governments recognize the price that they are already paying for climate change, and know that they can’t just keep passing all of those costs onto their taxpayers while the global fossil fuel industry pays nothing and pockets massive profits,” said Andrew Gage, staff lawyer and head of WCEL’s climate program.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, a trade association representing Canadian oil and gas producers, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Gage said oil giants like Chevron and ExxonMobil should shoulder the costs of climate change.

“BC has enacted laws to make sure that global tobacco and pharma companies pay a share of the healthcare costs caused by cigarettes and opioids. With a rising tide of climate-related costs facing Vancouver and Richmond and other BC communities, it is time for the BC government to do the same for global fossil fuel companies,” Gage said.

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