1 Inviting local governments to demand climate accountability | West Coast Environmental Law

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Inviting local governments to demand climate accountability

10 March, 2017
 Victoria City Hall. (Photo: Herb Neufeld)

On Thursday, February 23, I appeared before the City of Victoria’s Mayor, Lisa Helps, and its Council to talk about climate accountability. This is just one of many conversations we’re having with city councils, councillors, municipal staff and others following up on our January 25, 2017 letter about climate accountability

As part of that discussion, we’ve unveiled a new resource – Climate Accountability Letters: An introduction for local governments – which explains why local government must step up to the plate. 

Recently Chevron warned its shareholders, for the first time, that there is a possibility that it may be sued for its contributions to the climate crisis. We need all fossil fuel companies, and the investors and the governments that benefit from them, to know that they are responsible for paying their fair share of the impacts of fossil fuel pollution. Then, and only then, will we see some real action on climate change.

Advice to Victoria City Council

Here’s part of what I told Victoria’s Council:

… We tend to think of climate change as affecting someone else – maybe polar bears and Pacific Islanders. But, of course, [here in Victoria] we live on an island in the Pacific. In addition to increased erosion, the City of Victoria is dealing with summer droughts, extreme winter precipitation, rising sea levels and other climate impacts. The infrastructure – sea walls, roads, stormwater systems – that Victoria builds today needs to be able to withstand those impacts for the next 30, 50 or more years. And right now the assumption is that 100% of the increased costs of building climate-resilient systems lies with taxpayers. 

We need a new conversation. We need to recognize that a relatively small number of fossil fuel companies have played a major role in causing the climate crisis, have made hundreds of billions of dollars in the process – they are some of the wealthiest companies in the world – and that they do not plan to pay a dime for costs of preparing our communities for climate change. Just 20 fossil fuel companies are responsible – through their operations and their products – for almost 30% of the human-caused greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere today. …

Demanding that the fossil fuel cartels pay their fair share for climate impacts, rather than simply paying for them with taxpayer dollars, is fiscally responsible. But it’s also absolutely critical in terms of fighting climate change.

The world has a huge job ahead of it – transitioning to a sustainable economy. You know what a huge job this is, because you have adopted the difficult goal of reaching 100% renewable energy by 2050.

And it’s going to be a whole lot more difficult if one huge industry believes that it can continue to make massive profits selling the products that cause climate change without paying for the harm that those products cause. Renewable energy will always be at a disadvantage if it needs to compete with an energy industry that won’t clean up after itself.  …

Why this is the responsibility of local governments

West Coast's Andrew Gage and Anjali Appadurai attended the Union of BC Municipalities Convention in fall 2016, speaking to local leaders like Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne about climate accountability. (Photo: WCEL)

We’re excited that individual British Columbians are taking up the call for climate accountability.  We appreciate being cc’d on your letters and hearing about your correspondence.

One Lower Mainland resident wrote to us because the Environment Committee of the City of Burnaby had responded to his calls for accountability arguing that “this matter is the responsibility of the Provincial Government” and not local government. 

This exchange was just one of the several conversations that prompted us to write a new publication answering some of the basic questions that local governments may have about sending climate accountability letters to the fossil fuel industry. Here’s what Climate Accountability Letters: An introduction for local governments says about the perception that local governments should leave climate accountability to other levels of government:

Is this within local government jurisdiction?

Municipalities and regional districts are incurring and will continue to incur costs related to climate change. Prudent management of their financial resources requires local governments to at least consider the possibility that some of those costs can be recovered from fossil fuel companies and, if appropriate, to take steps to do so.

One of the purposes of municipalities (according to the BC Community Charter) is “fostering the economic, social and environmental well-being” of the community – so Council also has a clear mandate to play its part in addressing climate change globally.

What’s next?

This conversation is just starting.  Let’s all keep talking to elected officials about climate impacts and the role of the fossil fuel industry. Here at West Coast, we’ll be continuing these dialogues as well. 

On March 31st we’re speaking to local government officials at the Centre for Civic Governance’s 2017 High Ground Conference. Then, on April 26th we’ll be in Rossland to present at the Association of Kootenay and Boundary Local Governments General Meeting. We’re exploring how best to participate in other regional local government meetings as well. 

And, of course, we will continue to schedule delegations and meetings with individual local governments, or individual government officials, in order to see this work move forward. 

It’s unbelievably encouraging that Chevron – one of the largest fossil fuel polluters – recognizes the financial and legal risks associated with its products. It’s a sign that this is a conversation the fossil fuel industry can no longer ignore. 

 

By Andrew Gage, Staff Counsel