Climate Action Centre

A class-action lawsuit

Image by kmicican from Pixabay.

It’s time for the Carbon Majors to start being accountable for the full impact of their products. Today, these giant fossil fuel corporations are managing to profit in their winner-take-all business model, while their products are causing our local communities to have to manage emergencies such as wildfires, floods, sea-level rises, storm surges, forest fires and others.

Municipalities can start to recover climate-related damages by making a legal case that fossil fuel producers should pay their fair share.

Litigation is not a one-step process, and there are many ways to approach it. We’ve answered some of the most common questions relating to how a class-action lawsuit on climate contamination might take shape. If you have questions that aren’t below, let us know by contacting our Community Organizer.

Find out how to get involved and take action in your community >>

Frequently Asked Questions about Climate Litigation

I’ve heard about legislation that the Province of BC could enact—what would it do?

By urging the Province to create a framework (a legal statute), the legal rules of liability for harm caused by climate change will be clarified. This statute will help to protect B.C. taxpayers against the rising tide of climate change costs and give global fossil companies financial incentives to work to solve the climate crisis. BC has done this for Big Tobacco and public health cases and recently for Big Pharma and opioids cases.

How is it possible to determine which fossil fuel company is responsible for which cost?

As a starting point, we are suggesting the share of fossil fuels produced by each corporation, based on the work of Heede (2013), be the equivalent share of adaptation costs for which the companies are responsible. From Heede’s study, we know that Chevron, Exxon, and Saudi Aramco have each contributed just over three percent of global and historic fossil fuels brought to market so they should be responsible for three percent of the costs.

Isn’t it divisive to take on Canadian companies like this?

First of all – we are not suggesting that Canadian companies be included in the legal actions, we are asking that the top 20 of the Carbon Majors be contacted.  These companies are internationally based, and otherwise would be difficult to engage with through regulation or policy changes.

Secondly – it is not divisive to have an honest conversation with someone or a group who is causing us harm about those harms.  It is in fact reasonable and responsible to speak of our experiences to those in power who are furthering them, so that they can understand and change appropriately.

How do municipalities calculate the financial cost of climate change?

These costs are tallied for infrastructure upgrades that are required to adapt to climate projections, as well as for maintenance increases above current levels. Victoria city staff have already started to include these calculations, and we are urging more local governments to do the same.

Will taking action against the carbon majors make consumer prices higher for fossil fuel products?

We are already paying these costs, simply through different channels: our taxes. These actions are about bringing more of the complete cost of fossil fuels (such as coal, oil, and gas) into the price at the pump. This way consumers will have better options as companies will be forced to offer more choices to a more informed consumer. Right now our energy market is imbalanced because the taxpayer is absorbing the true expenses of fossil fuel corporations.

As a global community, the most concerning costs are the rapidly mounting ones from the impacts of climate change. These are damages from climate breakdown, include the costs of repairs from storms and floods, and for new infrastructure that will stand up to the growing changes of our climate. Vancouver is predicting costs of $1 billion dollars to adapt to sea-level rise alone before 2100, while Metro Vancouver is expecting costs of $9.5 billion to build infrastructure to prevent the worst of the damage. If we do not adapt, federal infrastructure valued at $73 billion is expected to undergo $50 billion worth of damage before mid-century.

Are municipalities likely to experience retaliation if they sign-on to this initiative?

One municipality has been the focus of a marketing campaign by the Canadian fossil fuel industry, but more than 20 municipalities in B.C. have taken action or voted to do so, and have largely heard very little in the way of retaliation. As we move on this together by telling our collective story of climate damages, the harder it will be for industry to single out anyone or deny the truth.

Is this initiative merely a symbolic or token action?

We’re putting the major fossil fuel companies on notice. We know that their products are causing damages and are significant contributors to global heating. It’s time for them to be accountable for the impacts of their products and for them to channel their financial resources, relationships with governments, and access to world markets to drive the development and implementation of alternative and clean energies. Unfortunately, they’re not going to change their winner-take-all business model unless they’re forced to. A class-action lawsuit is a tool we’re looking at to incentivize change and correct the imbalance of who is profiting and who is covering expenses.

Climate Breakdown is an emergency – how long will this take to change things?

We saw with Big Tobacco and Opioids, this kind of legal action forces corporations to reconsider their actions as soon as we initiate a case.  The  first phases of the Big Tobacco suits by health care providers allowed the conversation by decision makers and both government and corporate behaviour changed once the suits were launched. Lobbying language shifted and government subsidies stopped nearly immediately. Political space for policies, such as regulating smoking in public spaces and restaurants, grew and leadership was taken in helping to curb demand before the successful cases had passed the discovery phase where corporate books and memos were revealed.

Can B.C. learn from the growing number of cases around the globe, such as New York’s lawsuit against ExxonMobile?

The lessons learned from New York, Rhode Island, and many other jurisdictions where these cases are being attempted and heard, will inform the legal strategies in a Canadian context. They may also inform policy decisions and corporate behaviour before they are complete. Legal action is not a one-step process, and every attempt at having a successful case moves us collectively closer to the result we seek. When Big Tobacco was taken to court, many groups tried to get into court and were only partially successful or their cases were thrown out entirely. B.C. led the way in Canada by passing legislation that outlined the liability of Big Tobacco, and simplified cases against them. However, once the courts were ready to deal with the issue the successful case was ultimately the most powerful tool to inspire change in the corporations’ books and behaviour, creating the kind of societal changes that are needed.  

How expensive will this be for taxpayers?

Right now, taxpayers are on the hook for 100 percent of climate-change-related costs in their communities, which are already predicted to reach billions of dollars before the year 2100. This legal action represents a real pathway to fairly splitting the tab with the corporations that have profited. No lawyer can cost out a full course of legal action before it is undertaken, but there are many strategies, including using class action, pooling resources, and moving as a block, to help keep the costs of legal action manageable. We know that if we don’t take this pathway that the costs for communities will only increase, devastating communities and their resources.

How can you call for an end to fossil fuels when our society depends on them?

Today every community and every individual in Canada uses fossil fuels to some degree. Jack Crompton, the Mayor of Whistler, summarized this sentiment at Whistler’s council meeting when councillors voted to take climate-accountability action. He said, “A friend pointed out to me that we’re all hypocrites on this, but that we simply can’t afford to wait until everyone has clean hands before we act. The challenge is too big and the urgency is too great. The time to act is now.”