Andrew Gage: Suing Big Oil to Protect Taxpayers and the Planet Has Strong Legal Basis

Opinion: Vancouver taxpayers are spending about $75 per resident to address the impacts of climate change. Why the online outrage over spending $1 per resident to try to recoup some of these costs?


Every year, the burning of oil, gas and coal adds to a layer of heat-trapping pollution across the planet that is causing heat waves and wildfires, atmospheric rivers and floods, landslides and droughts. As a direct result of fossil fuel pollution, the City of Vancouver is spending approximately $50 million annually preparing for climate change right now.

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That figure will rise as the city must take steps to prevent future heat deaths, build stormwater systems that can handle atmospheric rivers, and water systems that can handle droughts. The city expects to spend $1 billion over the next several years to protect False Creek and other low-lying land from flooding caused by rising sea levels and storm surge caused by climate change.

Last week, the Vancouver council took a tentative first step in trying to shield taxpayers from those massive costs, following a recommendation by the Sue Big Oil campaign, of which West Coast Environmental Law is a member. The mayor and five council members decided it was unfair for taxpayers to pay 100 percent of those costs while the global fossil fuel industry, whose products are the main cause of climate change, pays nothing. They voted to include $1 per Vancouver resident in the 2023 budget draft so the city can collaborate with other local governments to jointly sue global companies like Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil and others for their fair share of climate costs.

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The Council was quickly attacked on social media for wasting taxpayer money. This is unbelievable: Vancouver taxpayers currently spend about $75 per resident to address the impacts of climate change, but online outrage is over spending $1 per resident to try to recoup some of these costs and the huge future costs that result. of fossil fuel pollution.

The reality is that any industry that sells products that it knows will cause harm can expect to be sued, especially when the industry actively works to mislead the public or delay the development of solutions. Think of the lawsuits against tobacco, asbestos, and opioid producers, all of which were ultimately successful.

In the 1980s and 1990s, scientists at Shell, Exxon, and other global fossil fuel companies had a detailed understanding of not only climate change, but also floods, sea level rise, heat waves, and other impacts that they were warned they would produce. Companies could have responded to this information by putting their considerable resources into developing alternatives. Many of the companies held patents on solar panels, low-emission vehicles and other technologies that could have helped stave off the climate crisis.

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Instead, these companies actively lobbied against action on climate change and misled the public about climate science, making massive profits as a result. The 1998 Global Climate Science Communications Plan developed by Chevron, Exxon Mobil, the American Petroleum Institute and others stated that, “Victory will be achieved when average citizens understand the uncertainties in climate science…(and) those who promote (climate action) on the basis of existing science appears to be out of touch with reality.”

There is a strong legal basis for holding these companies responsible for their share of Vancouver’s climate costs. In the words of 28 Canadian law professors who wrote an open letter on why local governments should pursue these kinds of lawsuits, the logic is simple: Those who profit from the sale of harmful products should bear their fair share of the cost of the products. damages caused by your actions. products Those who suffer the damage and the governments that represent them should not bear the full cost. In our opinion, existing legal principles could form a strong basis for a lawsuit brought by a local government against fossil fuel companies for local climate costs.

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The Sue Big Oil Campaign is calling on BC local governments to work together to protect their residents from the damage and costs of climate change. Doing so has the potential to save taxpayers money, but also to force these global companies to include the costs of climate change on their balance sheets. That, in turn, gives them, their investors and governments a financial incentive to make better business decisions than in the past, and to be part of the solution, instead of continuing to harm our atmosphere and communities.

Andrew Gage is a staff attorney at West Coast Environmental Law.

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