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Oil firms need to share climate-change costs

Carbon majors
October 22, 2017

When it comes to climate change, there is no free lunch. But sometimes people are stuck arguing over the bill.

So far, Chevron, Exxon and the other giant fossil-fuel companies have been passing the climate-change bill on to us as taxpayers, quietly sneaking out the back door while pocketing massive profits. Three B.C. municipalities – Highlands, Saanich and, most recently, Victoria – have decided to write to those energy giants politely, making the modest (and fair) suggestion that we split the bill. In doing so, they’re sending a message that can help us build a sustainable future.

Human-caused climate change is happening. Each year, pollution from the burning of fossil fuels spreads a heat-trapping blanket over the world, giving the planet a bit more of a fever, and disrupting global weather patterns.

Scientists are increasingly able to link the types of unprecedented wildfires, flooding, storms and droughts we’ve seen this past year to climate change.

Municipalities such as Victoria are required to plan and build expensive infrastructure that will have to withstand the next 30 or 50 years of climate change, based on the best available science.

From municipalities planning for drought on Vancouver Island to Interior communities trying to manage future wildfire risk, these are current expenses that are the direct result of the risks posed by climate change.

Just a year ago, the City of Vancouver debated whether expected sea-level rise in False Creek requires an $800-million storm-surge protector or “just” $300 million to $400 million to raise sea walls.

Our governments know that they are already paying for the costs of climate change. Those costs are going to get a lot worse, as global temperatures continue to rise. And — until these recent letters by local governments — the different levels of government have simply used taxpayer dollars to pay.

Fossil-fuel companies, obviously, like this situation. They get to sell a product that they know will cause these types of impacts, but expect everyone else to pay to clean up the resulting mess.

A comprehensive review of climate science commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute in 1968 confirmed that fossil-fuel pollution was even then irrevocably altering the global atmosphere, and raised questions about whether the industry needed to find cleaner energy options.

And because the industry has expected us to pay, it ignored the warnings of its own scientists. Fossil-fuel companies invested not in renewable-energy technology, but instead in misleading the public on climate science and lobbying against action on climate change.

The energy giant, Exxon, held patents on hybrid vehicles and other low-emission technology in the 1970s that it never developed.

The result has been an industry that, even now with renewable energy dropping in price, appears to be hugely profitable, a wealth-creator that no government can afford to turn its back on. But it’s an illusion.

The industry seems profitable only because our communities are left paying the bill.

The “climate accountability letters” sent by Victoria, Saanich and Highlands agree that we, individually and as communities, do bear some responsibility for climate change. But so, too, does the fossil-fuel industry, and it is not paying its fair share. We can have a debate about what the industry’s fair share is, by all means, but it isn’t right that it’s not paying at all.

That’s just bad economics. If a polluter does not pay at least a share of the costs of pollution, things don’t get better.

Renewable energy cannot compete against an industry that won’t pay for the harm it causes. Individuals do not get access to choices that allow them to reduce their own emissions. Governments are captured by an industry with money to burn.

Communities are waking up to the fact that their taxpayers do not need to bear the costs of climate change alone. The letters sent by Victoria, Saanich and Highlands are supported by many British Columbians — one recent poll found that 75 per cent of British Columbians would support (strongly or somewhat) their local government sending a letter of this type.

In California, five local governments, including San Francisco, recently sued major fossil-fuel companies for the costs of preparing for climate change. Sixty-three per cent of British Columbians polled would support similar actions here.

We welcome communities demanding accountability from the Chevrons of the world.

If we want to build a sustainable future, we need the largest players in the fossil-fuel economy to be part of the solution — both changing their behaviour and paying a fair share of the costs that their products cause.

We cannot be left holding the bill alone.


This opinion piece also appeared in the Times Colonist.

Andrew Gage, Staff Counsel