Vancouver’s council should examine other Canadian cities before committing to climate lawsuits

Last week, Vancouver City Council voted in favour of a motion to set the city on a path to pursue a lawsuit against major energy producers in an attempt to hold them liable for climate-change related damages. Stewart Muir analyses the situation and offers a way forward

horiz-van.jpgHowever, proponents on Vancouver’s Council should be looking at the experience of other BC cities that have further examined this idea before moving forward with this lengthy and costly process.

The motion called for the following actions:

  1. For the Mayor to write a letter to Canada’s and BC’s environment ministers requesting that they enact legislation to make it easier for cities to sue energy producers.
  2. For the Mayor to write a letter to the 20 energy companies with the highest percentage of greenhouse gas emissions and ask they pay the city money for climate related costs.
  3. For the Mayor to reach out to cities across the Country and seek to collaborate on investigating legal strategies.
  4. For the Mayor to support calls for the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) to also send letters and ask the environment ministers to enact enabling legislation.

If this sounds familiar, it is because Vancouver is hardly the first city in BC to explore or take similar symbolic actions over the last couple years. The result has been zero lawsuits, with the main accomplishment being wasted time and resources at local municipalities. However, no cities have moved beyond the letter writing campaign thus far, and some have actually backed away from the idea when they were forced to grapple with the practical shortcomings of the see-you-in-court approach.

Notably, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, who was once a leading proponent of the campaign, publicly abandoned the push for a class-action lawsuit saying, “Fighting lawsuits is probably not the best way to spend our time when we’ve got a planet to save.” This reversal came months after Victoria passed a resolution endorsing a class-action lawsuit, which made it the first Canadian city to openly call for litigation. Now Helps says, “As Canadians, we have a responsibility to have productive dialogue, rather than throwing stones and starting lawsuits.”

Once Vancouver moves past the symbolic gestures of letter-writing, talking to other interested cities, and asking associations or other government bodies to take action, it too may find itself in the same position as Victoria, and abandon the effort.

The general view of Mayor Helps was reaffirmed recently at the North Central Local Government Association by a resolution stating, “Engaging in symbolic actions such as writing letters, passing resolutions and filing class-action lawsuits in the name of ‘climate liability’ against major innovation drivers and employers is not an appropriate direction for BC municipalities.”

Richmond’s council also passed a resolution calling for the city to send letters and ask BC to enact the same resolution earlier that same week. The resolution passed despite some concerning analysis from Richmond city staff stating, “lengthy, expensive lawsuits would be expected.” The staff report also raises some concerns about the broader thrust of the whole litigation campaign that are worth considering, especially by council members who are currently being lobbied by West Coast Environmental Law. Read the Richmond staff report.

Instead of lawsuits, here's another idea: Vancouver should collaborate with industry and double-down on smart policies to prepare for and mitigate the impacts of climate change. In a letter to Vancouver city council members, I've called on the council to take a better path.

“Litigation is costly, lengthy, and divisive," I stated. "The real goal is to get our society where we need to go in order to address climate issues. As a strategy, litigation politicizes an important issue by attempting to place blame on local and foreign companies, when everyone must work together to develop meaningful solutions. Governments at all levels can and should collaborate with energy companies to continue to drive innovation that reduces emissions, making our communities more resilient to the impacts of climate change.”

Will anything come of this? We'll see. As the true implications of a needlessly divisive and expensive lobbying effort begin to be understood, I have no doubt that councillors in Vancouver as elsewhere will be looking for sources of wise, collaborative counsel on how to move ahead. Let's hope they will have to wisdom to seek out informed, committed, and practical professional advice to get past the rhetoric and achieve win-win solutions.

Stewart Muir is executive director of Resource Works.




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