West Coast Environmental Law and the Georgia Strait Alliance came up short last week, when 47.8% of local officials at the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) voted to send a climate accountability letter to 20 of the world’s most colossal fossils. But while “we narrowly lost the vote,” writes WCEL staff lawyer Andrew Gage, “I felt surprisingly good about it”.
Gage and Georgia Strait Alliance campaigner Anna Barford had just spent a week “speaking to mayors, regional board members, and councillors from across the province, explaining why it was important to ensure that the costs of climate change not be left to taxpayers,” Gage writes. “Instead, we believe these costs must be shared with an industry that has made billions of dollars selling the very products that cause climate change.”
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They fell short by perhaps a dozen votes. But in just 18 months, Gage says the WCEL-led campaign has made important progress, with 15 local governments and one major local government association signing on, about a dozen B.C. environmental groups joining in, and more than 50 organizations calling on the province to adopt a Liability for Climate-related Harm Act.
“A year and a half ago, the idea of holding fossil fuel companies accountable for climate costs was not a thing,” Gage notes. “Yet here we were, talking with some of B.C.’s hardest working and most underpaid politicians (it ain’t easy being a local government councillor or a mayor, particularly in smaller communities) about this issue.”
His post recounts the detailed arguments for and against the resolution, beginning with Victoria Councillor Ben Isitt asking whether communities should pay 100% of the cost of the climate impacts they experience, and Vancouver Councillor Adrian Carr pointing out that every B.C. community has already seen those impacts.
“In terms of climate change, how many of you have not felt the impacts of climate change in your communities?” Carr asked. “Whether it’s fires this summer, the smoke of which affected virtually everyone in this province, every single one of our communities. How many of you have not felt the impact of more severe winter storms? In Vancouver and the coastal areas it’s weather, more severe storms in the winter; it’s hotter, drier summers. Every one of you in your regions knows what those impacts are. Whether it’s on the health of your people, whether it’s on the forests, whether the ability to grow food in agriculture.”
North Cowichan Councillor and mayoral candidate Al Siebring countered that cities should instead “write a letter to the 20 fossil fuel companies in question thanking them for providing the means for us to come together at this convention.” Another speaker expressed concern that, “although we say it’s just the fossil fuel companies, it’s really aimed at all resource companies. So who’s next? Is it the transportation industry? Is it the agricultural industry? Who’s next that these folks will aim their target on?
In his commentary, Gage agreed that “fossil fuel use is so ingrained in our society that no industry (or individual) can claim to be entirely innocent of producing any greenhouse gas emissions.” But “the fossil fuel industry is unique among industries in that it is actually responsible for removing fossil fuels from the ground. Without that step, emissions from burning that oil, gas, or coal could not occur.”