Vancouver could become the first Canadian city to sue Big Oil
Polluters should pay, eh?
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
More than 20 U.S. states and municipalities have sued major fossil fuel companies to recoup the massive costs of climate disasters. While those cases make their way through the courts, one of our neighbors to the north is now considering taking similar action.
That’s right: Vancouver could soon become the first Canadian city to sue Big Oil to make polluters pay for climate damages they knowingly caused.
The Vancouver City Council passed a motion in July to set aside funds for a “class action lawsuit against fossil fuel companies,” seeking to make them chip in for the gargantuan costs to become more resilient against climate disasters.
Over the past year, an onslaught of extreme weather events has devastated Canada’s eighth largest city, originally built for its once-mild and stable climate.
Last summer, British Columbia experienced a weeks-long deadly heat dome. Temperatures peaked at 121.3 Fahrenheit in the village of Lytton, northeast of Vancouver, helping catalyze a massive wildfire that burned the village to the ground. Government officials and community groups rushed to deliver water and gather people in city cooling centers. Hundreds of people in the Vancouver metro area were killed, most of them people who were elderly, poor, unhoused, isolated, or women.
“We lost people in the city who couldn’t find a safe place to retreat to, and others were really debilitated by [the heat],” said Vancouver City Councilor Adriane Carr, who has helped begin an effort to retrofit more community spaces as cooling centers. “I don’t want to ever see that again.”
Besides the heat dome, there was a weeks-long polar vortex, whose cold, said Carr, cracked streets and sidewalks; a storm-induced king tide that significantly damaged the city’s seawalls and breached its waterfront; and an “atmospheric river” resulting in a deluge that swamped farms, overwhelmed drainage systems, shut down roads and public transit, and forced thousands to flee their homes.
Vancouver’s new climate realities didn’t appear on their own. “Big Oil companies knew that the burning of fossil fuels would create climate change, and instead of mitigating it from the beginning, they decided to focus on disinformation campaigns to convince people that climate change wasn’t caused by fossil fuels,” said Carr. “Enough is enough.”
Carr, who was born in Vancouver and co-founded North America’s first Green Party, is now fighting to make polluters pay for the climate damages they’ve already caused. In July, she put forward Vancouver’s motion to allocate $1 for each of the city’s more than 660,000 residents toward a lawsuit against major oil and gas polluters.
The idea, Carr says, came from a public campaign launched by several regional environmental advocacy groups encouraging Canada’s cities and provinces to “Sue Big Oil.”
According to polling conducted this summer, 69% of British Columbians would support their local governments taking legal action against oil majors to alleviate a share of climate costs. “So many people are worrying about the next heatwave, and it’s a terrifying kind of experience,” said Fiona Koza, climate accountability strategist at West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL), one of the groups behind the campaign.
Andrew Gage, a staff lawyer at WCEL, said the Sue Big Oil campaign is working to harness public support for a climate liability lawsuit in order to build momentum for other municipalities to file suit. “It’s really difficult to see how communities can afford to do what’s needed to prepare for the impacts of climate change if we have an industry that’s making hundreds of billions of dollars a year and not paying any of the costs caused by their products,” he said. “The economics of this are all wrong, and our goal is to challenge that.”
Vancouver will need 50 million Canadian dollars (about $39 million) in repairs for just the past year of climate disasters, says Councilor Carr, including for retrofitting buildings and installing cooling centers; rebuilding seawalls, roads, and sidewalks; and upgrading water and sewage systems that were damaged during storms. Carr says those repairs — not to mention the money needed for more permanent resilience investments — are a “burden of affordability” for residents.
City Councilor Christine Boyle, who also voted for the resolution, said she feels strongly that Big Oil companies “should pay their fair share of the costs that their products and their misinformation have caused,” and that “the full weight of these growing climate impacts shouldn’t fall on taxpayers alone.”
“We have a number of other important community projects and facilities that we would like to invest in, that residents would like us to invest in, but because of the need to repair infrastructure damaged by climate impacts, a number of those projects have had to be delayed,” Boyle said. “We’re having to weigh out the right balance of increasing those costs for residents and doing as much as we can at a time.”
Members of the Sue Big Oil campaign are keeping an eye on municipal elections in mid-October, which will determine not only whether Vancouver will move forward with its lawsuit (the council vote passed 6-5) but if other local governments will do the same. “We’re going to be asking candidates, ‘Who is going to pay for the impacts of climate change?’ — and whether they plan to sue the fossil fuel industry for a share of those costs,” said Gage, the lawyer at WCEL.
A lawsuit in Vancouver wouldn’t be the only such case outside the United States: a Peruvian farmer is going to court against German polluter RWE for the costs of preventing major flooding from the melting of a nearby glacier.
Councilor Boyle said she was encouraged by the volume of climate accountability cases in the United States, as well as the success of similar lawsuits against the tobacco and opioid industries. “There’s a lot of lessons and inspiration on how impacted communities have rallied together against these big financial interests to hold them accountable for the harms they cause,” Boyle said.
In a country that has long had deep ties to the fossil fuel industry, and where oil and gas lobbying and disinformation campaigns still play a large role in politics, taking a stand against Big Oil is no small feat.
Andrew Radzik of the Georgia Strait Alliance, another environmental group behind the Sue Big Oil campaign, said that fossil fuel giants are now throwing significant resources behind PR campaigns to discredit climate liability lawsuits in Canada and the U.S. “There’s an air of fear from these corporations because they realize that at some point, they’re going to be held accountable,” he said. “That’s a motivator for us. To me, this is an indication that we have to keep going.”
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Context for non-Canadians: Vancouver itself may technically be "Canada's eighth largest city." But it forms the core of a large metropolitan area that in the Canadian psyche is actually one of our three biggest cities, i.e., Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.