Last weekend local municipal officials in British Columbia (B.C.) met for the annual meeting of the Association of Vancouver Island Coastal Communities (AVICC) and rejected a resolution put forward by the city of Victoria that would have asked the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) to look into the possibility of a class action lawsuit filed by municipalities against a handful of energy companies for climate damages.
This is the primary vehicle municipalities in B.C. were pursuing to initiate a class-action lawsuit, which would make it significantly easier for those communities to sue, calling into question the future of climate lawsuits in B.C.
After having “second thoughts” about the lawsuit, Victoria’s Mayor Lisa Helps has taken a strong stance against her own city’s resolution, since a lawsuit would likely have slowed local climate action in her view:
“There was a very, very strong lineup at the ‘con’ mic talking about the need to have a more collaborative approach. So I would say overall the message that comes out of the conference is that climate change is really important to the local governments on the island – that there is urgency.” (emphasis added)
The mayor of View Royal B.C., David Screech, was blunter in his assessment of the vote:
“The motion was soundly defeated just now at our conference. No lawsuits.” (emphasis added)
This is particularly notable since Victoria has been the driver of the push for climate lawsuits in Canada and was the first city in the country to initially recommend such a lawsuit. AVICC has been another key organization pushing for climate lawsuits and sent a letter to energy companies last year recommending that cities sue.
At the beginning of the year, Climate Liability News –an outlet dedicated to promoting positive news about climate lawsuits – was predicting that B.C., led by Victoria and Vancouver, would become the next vanguard of climate litigation:
“Western Canadian cities, led by Vancouver and Victoria, have taken significant steps in what could become litigation against the world’s major carbon producers aimed at recovering costs related to climate change.
Keith Stewart, a senior strategist for Greenpeace and key proponent of the lawsuits explained the importance of a class action lawsuit:
“‘The class-action lawsuit would actually make this a lot easier for more communities to participate’. Local governments do not have the resources for their own lawsuits, he said, and people are more likely to participate in the decision-making process in small municipalities.”
This concept was also explained in a legal analysis put out by Osler, a top law firm in Canada, when it looked like Victoria would pursue a lawsuit:
“The purported justification for the class action is to enable Victoria to safeguard the financial interests of its residents by recovering costs for climate-related harms from oil and gas producers who profit from the burning of fossil fuels.
The proposed suit may be structured as a class action with municipalities in B.C. (such as Victoria) as class members. The rationale for bringing a suit as a class action is two-fold: (1) it will allow class members to save legal fees through joint representation; and (2) B.C.’s class action rules (unlike some other provinces) do not require the losing parties to pay legal costs if their claim fails.”
But now, if Vancouver moves forward they would be forced to bear the all political and actual costs of a lawsuit in B.C. Even before one Canadian city after another dropped this tactic, Vancouver officials acknowledged potential costs of the lawsuits. In January, Vancouver Green Party Councilor Pete Fry described potential political hurdles:
“The lawyers have been looking at it. At a certain point, it will take a decision from council. Then we will have to decide how much political capital to stake on that. On a party level, we have been pushing for it.”
Given the consistent backlash to the idea of climate lawsuits across Canada, perhaps it is time for Vancouver officials to announce that they too are officially dropping this divisive and ineffective tactic.