Skip to main content

A man stops to look at damage to the seawall caused during a windstorm last week, at Third Beach in Stanley Park, Vancouver, on Jan. 10.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver City Council has voted to designate about $660,000 for potential legal action against global fossil fuel companies to recoup costs associated with climate change, such as sea wall repairs and protection from extreme heat.

Councillor Adriane Carr put forward the motion, which passed 6-5 on Wednesday. The motion directs city staff to include in the city’s draft 2023 operating budget up to $1 per Vancouver resident to support a potential class-action lawsuit, which is still subject to approval by a new council given October’s municipal election. The 2021 census recorded 662,248 people in the city.

Ms. Carr said in an interview that it’s a simple matter of polluter pay.

“You get the companies that knowingly have kept selling their product, emitting [greenhouse gases], causing climate change, to pay the cost for cities like Vancouver that have borne phenomenally high amounts of money to repair damages caused by climate change,” she said.

Heavy rainfall, strong winds and a King Tide last fall and winter caused substantial damage in Vancouver. Sections of the sea wall were broken to pieces and the Kitsilano Pool sustained cracks, both of which took months to repair.

Climate battles are moving into the courtroom, and lawyers are getting creative

The motion sets into action the Sue Big Oil campaign by West Coast Environmental Law and Georgia Strait Alliance, launched in June, which called on all of B.C.’s local governments to take such action.

Andrew Gage, a staff lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, said he was delighted by Wednesday’s result, which he said shows that more elected officials are recognizing that taxpayers cannot foot the bill for the full cost of climate change while the global fossil fuel industry that contributes to it pays nothing.

“This is an industry that knew about rising sea levels due to climate change arguably from the late 1950s, and certainly knew in a lot of detail that their products were going to cause heat waves, flooding, wildfires and many of the same impacts we’ve experienced in B.C. by the 1980s and 1990s,” he said.

“They responded to that information by launching campaigns to actually confuse the public about the science and lobbying politicians to prevent meaningful action from climate change.”

A 2019 open letter on climate accountability litigation in Canada, signed by 28 Canadian law professors, noted such legal action is clearly novel, given that courts will need to answer difficult questions not previously considered, and that prospects for success are difficult to predict.

However, this does not mean that such a lawsuit cannot be won or that local government’s shouldn’t try, the letter said.

“Such a case would be novel in the same way that the first court cases demanding recognition of Indigenous rights or gay marriage, or claiming compensation against tobacco or asbestos companies, were novel,” the professors wrote. “Many members of the legal community viewed such cases as impossible when they were first proposed, and yet they ultimately proved successful.”

Andrew Radzik, an energy campaigner at Georgia Straight Alliance, said with Wednesday’s vote, Vancouver joins a rising global movement for climate accountability.

“These companies have lied, and profited in the trillions, and have not had to pay for the damage their products caused,” Mr. Radzik said in a statement. “It’s time for Big Oil to pay their fair share. This council understands that, and council members should be proud of their vote.”

Ms. Carr’s motion was supported by Mayor Kennedy Stewart; Green councillors Pete Fry and Michael Wiebe; COPE councillor Jean Swanson and OneCity councillor Christine Boyle. Rebecca Bligh, Lisa Dominato and Sarah Kirby-Yung of the new ABC Vancouver party opposed, as did TEAM councillor Colleen Hardwick and NPA councillor Melissa De Genova.

Mr. Fry said it he does not think it is “beyond the realm of possibility” that a class-action lawsuit could yield dividends for local governments, citing the recent proposed $150-million settlement between the federal and provincial governments and Purdue Canada over health care costs associated with the company’s opioid medications.

Ms. Dominato said she agreed that issues of climate change are urgent, and that fossil fuels play a role. However, she felt Ms. Carr’s proposal “isn’t the right tool in the tool box.” She noted that council already approved a climate emergency action levy last December that is expected to generate $100-million in the next decade, including $9-million in the current budget.

Ms. Carr said the climate levy “is just such a small amount compared to the damages we’ve had to pay to repair.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.