The mayor of the city leading the push for municipalities in British Columbia (BC) to file a class action lawsuit against energy companies for climate damages recently announced that she no longer believes climate lawsuits are the best way to deal with climate change. The announcement from Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps marks another major setback for the West Coast Environmental Law Centre’s (WCEL) years-long push to get local municipalities on board to sue as local officials realize the monetary and reputational costs such lawsuits pose to their communities.
Victoria made news early this year when they became the first city in Canada to call for a class action lawsuit and asked for the provincial association of municipalities, the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM), to look into the possibility of initiating the lawsuit.
However, when asked about the resolution on CBC radio on Thursday, Helps struck a different tune:
“Since we passed the original motion I have had some second thoughts.”
Helps went on to explain that a recent report from the Canadian federal government, which shows that climate change is occurring twice as fast in Canada than the rest of the world, changed her thinking on the issue since lawsuits take a very long time to work through the court system and may ultimately fail:
“We have to be carbon neutral, carbon free by 2050, and reduce our carbon output by 45 percent by 2030…Is suing fossil fuel companies the best way to get there when it’s taken 20 years to get the tobacco court cases, the class action court cases, to court? It’s taken 20 years and they are still not resolved. We’ve got 11 years as a global community to reduce our carbon significantly if we’re going to survive.”
This is a major change in position from Mayor Helps since under her leadership the city of Victoria has been laying the groundwork for a class action lawsuit for years. Victoria was one of the first BC municipalities to send letters to energy asking for damages in 2017. Last year, Victoria sponsored another resolution asking for UBCM to send a similar letter that was narrowly defeated.
The resolution for the class action lawsuit faces its first test at a regional association of municipalities’ convention next week. If the resolution does not pass there, it may not even make it to UBCM. With Helps backing away from her own city’s resolution it appears less likely to receive the necessary support.
Helps is also likely alarmed by the intense pushback Toronto faced when a city counselor introduced a motion for the city to consider lawsuits and the negative response Whistler received when the resort town sent a letter to Canadian company CNRL asking for climate damages. The Victoria Chamber of Commerce and the Hotels Association of Greater Victoria wrote to Helps asking her to back off her push for climate lawsuits.
It appears that local officials across Canada are waking up to the reality that pursuing climate litigation will not result in the positive publicity and cash for their municipalities as promised by the lawyers who are the true beneficiaries of any climate lawsuit. It is often difficult for elected officials to change their mind on an issue after taking a public position, Mayor Helps should be commended for her open-minded approach, which will serve as a benefit to her constituents and the environment.