Port Moody city council will be the 21st B.C. municipality to send a letter asking major fossil fuel producers to pay for the damage inflicted by climate change.
Council voted Tuesday to send letters to 20 major oil and gas companies seen to be some of the largest contributors to global emissions in the world.
“Our motion was to ask them to contribute their fair share of climate change-related costs, particularly in terms of damage climate change is going to cost our infrastructure and to our community in general,” said Coun. Amy Lubik, currently the acting mayor in the absence of Rob Vagramov, who is on leave as he faces a sexual assault charge.
At upcoming meetings of the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), council also plans to table resolutions urging other municipalities to do the same.
In second set of letters to the provincial and federal ministries of environment and climate change, Port Moody council will ask the governments to clarify how municipalities might file lawsuits against oil and gas companies to seek compensation for the damaging effects of climate change on the city.
"It's kind of what happened with big tobacco," Lubik told The Tri-City News. "There were a lot of small suits and they ended up losing over and over again. But then the Canadian government and provinces stepped in and clarified what evidence could be used [and] what constituted harm.”
While suits against tobacco makers sought damages to individuals, Port Moody is looking to clarify how a lawsuit might be filed to claim damages on a societal scale. That includes economic loss to the community through land and infrastructure damage as well as the extra cost of health care and emergency preparedness. It also includes things more difficult to measure, like psychological harm and damage to ecosystems.
Lubik said council is looking for clarification on how scientific modelling and historical evidence could be used in a lawsuit.
Across Metro Vancouver, rising sea levels are expected to cost about $9 billion, according to a 2012 provincial report. But as more evidence becomes available, that number is expected to grow.
“This is turning municipalities into first responders because they pay the bill to upgrade the storm sewer system, because they fund cooling centres in the summer and emergency storm shelters under storm situations,” said Anna Barford, a community organizer with Georgia Strait Alliance, one of the community groups organizing and lobbying municipalities to join the letter writing campaign.
The decision by council comes a week after the scientists at Environment and Climate Change Canada released a new study reporting that Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Since annual average temperatures were first recorded in Canada in 1948, they have increased by 1.7 C. The largest increases in temperature have been recorded across the north, prairies and northern B.C., where average annual temperatures have jumped by about 2.3 C.
The report warns that global warming will lead to more extreme weather across the country. Hotter temperatures could mean more wildfires and droughts, and rising sea levels combined with more intense rainfall could lead to increased flooding.
Port Moody is already taking a number of steps to counter the effects of climate change, like restricting the amount of pavement dedicated for driveways and off-street parking to no more than half of the front yard of houses so there can be more natural surfaces to absorb water. It has also adopted regulations about how close development can be built to creeks and tributaries.
While summers have been significantly drier in recent years, winter and spring precipitation has been increasing. Those trends are set to continue in coming years, with 11% more rain by 2050 and 20% more by 2080.
“They are on the hook for billions of dollars in adaptation costs… expenses that should be in the bottom line of the fossil fuel producers that profited from this,” said Barford.
But as Port Moody moves to become the latest B.C. municipality to challenge fossil fuel producers, some municipal leaders have recently questioned whether pursuing legal action is the best way to recoup the costs associated with climate change.
Following the release of the Environment and Climate Change Canada report, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps questioned whether legal action would drag on beyond the shrinking window where mitigation and adaptation will be most effective. Instead, Helps has suggested redirecting subsidies from fossil fuel companies to communities would be a faster, better way to handle the effects of climate change.
While Lubik is not opposed to Helps’ ideas, she also recognizes that as a small community with a relatively small pot of funding, Port Moody needs to explore as many options as it can.
“We're not planning on suing anybody anytime soon," she said. "But there is an increase in climate related-litigation suits across the world and we need to at least clarify: What are we actually asking for? What kind of evidence is needed to win?”
— with files from Diane Strandberg and Gary McKenna