By Dana Drugmand
With voters in British Columbia set to head to the polls for local general elections on October 20, a legal advocacy group is striving to ensure that climate liability is on the radar of candidates running for office. It is part of a broader strategy among climate justice advocates in Canada to elevate public discourse on the premise that fossil fuel companies should be held accountable for climate change impacts and their associated costs.
“I think once you have recognition of how much [climate change] is going to cost, you start asking who else is going to help pay for this,” said Andrew Gage, staff lawyer at West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL), the group spearheading the climate accountability campaign. “We are trying to communicate to elected officials and to the public that fossil fuel companies are responsible for the costs.”
WCEL launched an initiative in 2017 pressing local governments across the province to send letters to fossil fuel companies demanding they pay their fair share of the costs of climate change-related damages. Initially, four communities agreed to send the letters, and now a total of 15 municipalities have joined in. Additionally, the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities recently sent a climate accountability letter on behalf of 53 local governments.
Beyond that initiative, WCEL’s Research Foundation released a “candidates’ brief” last month aimed at educating politicians on the issue of climate accountability. According to WCEL, the “brief outlines how communities in BC and internationally have been working to hold fossil fuel companies accountable, including the 15 BC local governments that have voted to send letters to fossil fuel companies demanding accountability and over a dozen U.S. local governments that are suing the same companies.”
The release of the candidates’ brief followed a close vote by the Union of BC Municipalities, which represents all of the province’s local governments, on whether or not to send a climate accountability letter to 20 fossil fuel companies. The UBCM narrowly voted (52 to 48 percent) against sending the letter.
“However, this vote comes on the heels of four more communities voting to send such letters. And a year and a half ago this issue wasn’t even on the radar for local governments, so to go from that to a near-win is an accomplishment,” Gage said. “Our view is that communities that are not ready to sue nonetheless need to be talking about the moral and legal responsibility and that this type of campaign is key to that.”
Canadian politicians do seem more likely to make climate a campaign issue than American politicians. Despite a year full of increasingly costly climate impacts like hurricanes and wildfires, few U.S. politicians discuss the issue at all in their campaigns as climate change ranks low in polls of voting issues important to Americans.
North of the border the issue is less controversial. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s platform when he ran for the nation’s top office included support for strong climate action.
WCEL and the Georgia Strait Alliance have also put out a Corporate Climate Justice Survey for candidates running for local office in the communities along the Georgia Strait, which separates Vancouver Island from the mainland. The survey asks the candidates to indicate how they will work to identify and protect taxpayers from climate costs, including by seeking to ensure that fossil fuel companies pay a share. The Georgia Strait Alliance will begin publishing the survey responses next week.
“The survey is meant to help us identify folks interested in working with us after the election so we can hit the ground running,” said Anna Barford, community organizer with Georgia Strait Alliance.
“We are excited to see that the dial has started to move on climate accountability,” she said. “Now there’s enough understanding among candidates and in the public discourse that candidates feel comfortable taking this issue to the ballot box.”
In Vancouver, several candidates under the progressive OneCity party are running on the position that fossil fuel companies should be held accountable for climate costs. According to a news release on the party’s website, OneCity “is advocating that the City of Vancouver join British Columbia municipalities (supported by West Coast Environmental Law) in exploring how taking legal action could assign liability and help claim compensation for the costs of preparing for climate change.”
“We’re all responsible for climate change. Big Oil corporations should pay their fair share,” said OneCity council candidate Christine Boyle, a climate justice activist and United Church minister. “This is an important step in defending our community, while sending an international message to the world’s fossil fuel polluters.”
In Ontario, whose government is led by conservatives who recently repealed the province’s cap-and-trade program, a bill that would help clarify the legal liability of fossil fuel producers for climate impacts has just been re-introduced by Provincial Parliament member Peter Tabuns. While the “Liability for Climate-Related Harms Act” is not expected to pass, it is key to continuing the conversation, according to Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist at Greenpeace Canada.
“Bills get introduced many times as private member bills before they become government initiatives,” he said. But given that the province’s conservative government has backtracked on climate action, Stewart said that lawsuits will likely come into play.
“When governments refuse to take action, there’s increasing interest in using the courts,” he said. “Here in Ontario there’s a renewed interest in litigation, because we have a government that says we won’t do anything on climate change.”
Stewart predicted that Canadian municipalities would begin to file suits similar to those already being pursued by some U.S. cities, particularly if liability bills like the one Tabuns introduced begin to gain traction. He noted that tobacco litigation took off in Canada after provincial governments passed liability legislation, and following lawsuits in the U.S.
“It’s very similar to what happened with tobacco litigation where lawsuits started in the U.S. and then picked up here in Canada,” he said.