Trevor Hancock: Local councils are right to sue the fossil-fuel industry

Considerable derision has been heaped on Victoria city council for endorsing a class-action lawsuit against the fossil-fuel industry, seeking financial compensation for the added costs the city will incur as a result of climate change.

But far from complaining, we should be praising them and other local municipal councils that are also preparing to sue. Not only are they being prudent managers of the public purse, seeking to protect taxpayers from added costs, they are also being leaders in addressing climate change.

article continues below

The city’s latest action follows its November 2017 letter to 20 of the world’s largest oil and coal companies in which the city asked them to “pay your fair share of the costs of climate change that face our community.” The city took the view that: “You cannot make billions of dollars selling your product, knowing that it is causing significant financial harm to communities around the world, and not expect to pay for at least some of that harm.”

The costs are significant. A 2012 report from the B.C. government on the cost to adapt flood protection to meet the rise in sea level predicted by 2100 found the cost for Metro Vancouver would be $9.5 billion. Note this is only the cost associated with sea-level rise; it does not include costs from other aspects of climate change such as forest fires and air pollution, severe weather events and so on. Nor does it include the health costs of climate change.

Victoria was not even the first in B.C. to act — that honour goes to the District of Highlands, which sent a letter in July 2017. Since then, letters have gone from Saanich, Colwood and View Royal, Sooke has voted to send one, and in September 2018 the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities sent a letter on behalf of its 53 local-government members. All of this is supported by a West Coast Environmental Law campaign to hold the fossil-fuel industry to account, known as Climate Law in Our Hands.

Filing a lawsuit can have several beneficial effects. First, it can force open the files of the fossil-fuel industry, so we can see just how much they knew about global warming and its relationship to their products, when they knew it, what they might have done to hide this evidence, what they might have done to create doubt in the minds of the public and what their lobbying efforts with governments might have been.

For those of us who are veterans of the “tobacco wars,” this all sounds familiar. The tobacco industry was also sued because it was making money by selling a product it knew to be harmful, and then concealing that harm and casting doubt on the evidence in the minds of its users. In fact, the Centre for International Environmental Law, in its research into the Tobacco Industry Archives (one of the fruits of the legal action against the tobacco industry) found close ties between the oil and tobacco industries, noting “the oil companies have benefited from the tobacco playbook in their fight against climate science.”

Second, when a company is sued, this has to be reported to investors, so it becomes an investment risk. Third, there is a degree of public exposure and awareness, which helps to change the social and political conversation and might lead to a loss of market appeal. Fourth, the prospect of facing lawsuits and negative public opinion might encourage the companies to shift away from fossil fuels.

Finally, if the companies are found liable, any costs awarded would not only help reimburse taxpayers, but would raise the price of fossil fuels. This would be helpful — if unwelcome in some quarters in the short term — because we should pay the full cost of the fossil fuels we use. If we did, we would make very different choices.

Far from deriding local governments for being irresponsible, critics should be chiding the provincial and federal governments for failing to take action themselves. It would be a lot more effective if the B.C. government took on the case on behalf of local governments to recover their costs, adding the provincial costs, as well.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

Read Related Topics

© Copyright Times Colonist

Find out what's happening in your community.