Canada’s courts should tackle fossil-fuel firms, professor says

Canadian courts should pursue fossil-fuel companies for the costs of climate-change damage in the same manner they went after big tobacco companies for health-care costs related to smoking, a University of B.C. international law professor said Saturday.

“This is just like tobacco. So let’s go after them. Let’s seize the day,” Michael Byers said during a session on climate justice at the Victoria Forum.

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The forum, staged by the University of Victoria and Global Affairs Canada, is dedicated to fostering diversity and inclusion as Canada marks its 150th anniversary.

“Just to be clear: We are in a crisis,” Byers said. “It is profound. I’m 51 years old and during my lifetime we have increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 50 per cent. We’ve lost 50 per cent of the Arctic sea ice, that giant mirror that used to sit on top of the planet and reflect solar energy back into space.”

He added that solar energy is going into the ocean and affecting weather patterns.

“We’re on the brink of this precipice and the bad news is we’re not seeing the political will to take decisive action,” Byers said.

Even though the federal government understands and accepts the science, it approved a pipeline to take bitumen to the West Coast to ship to China, he said. “If you’re looking to politicians, there is considerable reason for despair.”

But the good news is climate science is now very rigorous and more than exceeds the burden of evidence required by courts around the world, he said.

“Let me remind you that in the 1980s big tobacco was boasting that they’d never lost a lawsuit or paid a settlement and that they had no expectation that they ever would,” Byers said.

In the past, an oil company could tell the court there was no evidence it was responsible for rising sea levels.

“I can tell you with authority, based upon really good science, that Chevron has contributed 3.52 per cent to global emissions since 1750. Exxon is just behind at 3.2 per cent,” Byers said.

“So if the sea level rises by one metre, Chevron is responsible for 3.52 centimetres. And if the City of Richmond has to spend $10 billion to build heightened dikes to protect real estate, Chevron is responsible for 3.52 per cent of that cost. We know that. That’s climate science.”

In 1998, B.C. passed legislation in an attempt to recover healthcare costs from tobacco companies. The lawsuit was put on hold while the tobacco companies took their case to the Supreme Court.

In 2005, the court found the legislation was constitutional. The province is now on the cusp of recovering $5 billion from the tobacco companies, Byers said.

“So why don’t we do this with climate change,” he suggested.

Suing the big fossil-fuel companies won’t solve the climate crisis, but it will impose massive costs on the industry, eliminate a lot of their profits and level the playing field for alternative energy sources, he said.

The Victoria Forum will conclude this afternoon.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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