My work to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for local climate costs, through our Climate Law in our Hands initiative, has provoked strong reactions. It has been blasted by climate skeptics and media commentators, and both former Alberta Premier Notley and current Premier Kenny (cross-party agreement!) – but to be honest I’m pretty conflict adverse.
So I was more than a little nervous when I recently found myself walking into a room to talk with ten or so mayors and councillors who have expressed disagreement with the thrust of the campaign. I met with members of the Resource Municipalities Coalition – a coalition of Northeastern local governments – to discuss how, in their view, my talk of fossil fuel companies being held accountable for climate costs is “divisive” and “inappropriate.”
As is often the case, my anxiety was misplaced; while I don’t think anyone fundamentally changed their views, we came away with a better understanding of, and respect for, each other’s positions.
But this exchange, as well as others I have recently had at gatherings of local elected officials, including the North Central Local Government Association (NCLGA) and the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities (AVICC), have me thinking about conflict, collaboration and change.
Uncomfortable but necessary conversations
Conflict and conversation are sometimes seen as opposites – we can either have a conversation or conflict, but not both. The reality is more complicated.
Certain topics may be socially unacceptable topics for conversation. Having a conversation about those topics will at best be uncomfortable and often will directly result in conflict.
Climate change falls within the socially awkward category – particularly with some audiences. That’s understandable. After building up a global economy and society premised on cheap, fossil fuel-based energy over the course of a couple of hundred of years, we now realize that that energy has brought us to the brink of global disaster. That’s pretty scary and overwhelming.
In addition, individuals or corporations with a lot of power or wealth based on the status quo may not have an interest in a good-faith conversation about problems with the status quo. Unless there is some form of conflict, they may be unwilling to come to a table to discuss the implications of that power and wealth.
Climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe has a great TED talk about why we need to talk about climate change more. Comedy can help. Recently Greta Thunberg has shown what it looks like to just start telling truths that we don’t usually hear about climate change with an apparent indifference to that social awkwardness – and it’s pretty awesome – but she is now seeing some of the resulting conflict.
Some people (notably our Prime Minister and many Canadian politicians) seem to be able to talk about climate change in one breath and about expanding fossil fuel development in the next – so just talking about climate change does not by itself challenge power and wealth.
The reality is that the climate crisis is primarily a fossil fuel problem, and at some point taking action on climate change must directly engage the power and wealth of those who have benefited from the production, marketing and sale of fossil fuels.
Our Climate Law in our Hands campaign does this by focusing on how climate change is harming the communities we live in and places that we love – and linking that harm to the profits of the fossil fuel industry. We insist that the costs of the fossil fuel economy to our lives and communities must appear on the balance sheets of global fossil fuel companies, alongside its profits.
We assert that our communities have the power, and a range of legal and political tools, to ensure that fossil fuel companies start taking responsibility for harm caused by oil, gas and coal, rather than leaving all of the costs to our taxpayers.
Demanding corporate accountability shouldn’t be controversial
In most contexts, it is no longer controversial to suggest that a corporation has some moral and legal responsibility for the costs caused by its products. BC has been on the forefront of requiring companies to take responsibility for the waste caused by their products – known in legal terms as “extended producer responsibility” (EPR):
[EPR is] an environmental strategy arising from the Polluter Pays Principle. The strategy objective is to minimize the environmental burden of a product by making the producer/consumer directly responsible for the financial costs and management functions associated with products throughout the product's life cycle with particular focus on the post‐consumer stage where responsibility has traditionally rested with local government authorities. [Emphasis added]
Extended producer responsibility has been championed by local governments, who otherwise bear many of the costs of dealing with harm caused by the products. There are similar expectations for companies whose products result in hazardous waste to take “cradle-to-grave” responsibility for that product, preventing contamination and cleaning it up when it occurs.
These principles bear environmental fruit by giving corporations the incentive to reduce and, where possible, eliminate toxic chemicals, reduce packaging, etc.
It was also once controversial to demand that tobacco and asbestos companies take responsibility for the harm caused by their products – but most of us now accept that as normal.
With BC local governments facing billions of dollars in costs directly caused by fossil fuel pollution, it only makes sense that oil, gas and coal companies should take cradle-to-grave responsibility for the harm caused by their products. To date, 21 BC communities have written letters to fossil fuel companies asking them to take partial responsibility, rather than leaving 100% of the costs to their taxpayers.
We know from polling that over 70% of British Columbians support the basic principle that fossil fuel companies should share in the costs resulting from their products. That support is high across the province, including in the North.
Why is it controversial to ask oil and gas companies to take some responsibility for harm caused to our communities by their products, but reasonable to ask that electronics manufacturers keep their products out of the landfill or clean up contamination resulting from their operations?
Speaking truth to power
Clearly, challenging the power and wealth of Chevron, Exxon Mobil and Shell significantly complicates the relationship between conversation and conflict. These three companies, together with BP and Total, spend over $200 million each year lobbying governments on climate change. Companies like this can afford to have public relations firms and industry associations to challenge and undermine their critics – manufacturing controversy and conflict.
Conversations about power often only occur when power is challenged. And yet, when those conversations do occur, and are successful, we often ignore or downplay the role of conflict in leading to the successful resolution.
For example, an elected official at the AVICC meeting argued that collaboration and conversations were better than threats of litigation against fossil fuel companies. As an example, the official pointed to negotiations that resulted in the relocation of fish farms out of the Broughton Archipelago:
Over the last few days we’ve heard a lot about working together, about collaboration, about how we can work together to solve big issues. We heard from the Premier on Friday about the agreement that was reached regarding aquaculture in the Broughton Archipelago. This is on a very difficult issue with different points of view all brought to the table to come to an agreement. … I fear that if we go down this path, especially the first part, the class action lawsuit, it will pit community against community, it will create an adversarial system in this province, and we will not be able to work together.
The reality is that the Broughton fish farm negotiations happened to a large degree because of First Nations lawsuits and civil disobedience – challenging the power of both the government and the fish farm companies.
As Lindsey Mae Willie of the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation explained back in June 2018, when the nation filed a lawsuit claiming Aboriginal Title over the areas where the fish farms were located:
We have been saying no for 30 years. … We have always said no and they just plunked themselves into our territory anyways. By going for Title they will have to listen to us. …
We have tried everything we can to protect our salmon. … We’ve had marches, demonstrations, handed out eviction notices, we even occupied a fish farm, Midsummer Island, but got kicked off through an injunction last December.
There is no way that we will solve the climate crisis by being polite and avoiding controversy. Fossil fuel companies currently have no incentive to sit down at the table to agree how to phase out the products that have made them billions of dollars in profits as rapidly as possible. On the contrary, they have every incentive to pay lip service to climate science while lobbying behind the scenes to slow climate action.
Controversy in oil and gas dependent communities
The pushback against Climate Law in our Hands – and complaints that the campaign has been divisive – has been largest from oil and gas dependent communities in the Northeast. However, elected officials in other areas of the province were also concerned that the campaign could undermine their ability to collaborate with colleagues in the North.
It might be tempting to dismiss these concerns as resulting from misinformation in the media and social media, leading many people in Alberta and BC to believe that Canadian industry was being singled out by this campaign (in actual fact, the campaign targets global companies, like Chevron and Saudi Aramco). Several councillors also expressed concern about Victoria’s (and our) interest in a class action lawsuit – which clearly ups the ante for fossil fuel companies.
However, after speaking with elected officials from the Northeast, I think that blaming the pushback only on misinformation and industry PR and lobbying would be too easy. When we speak about challenging those with power and wealth, we should not forget that a large part of that power comes from the dependence of real people, livelihoods and vibrant communities, on fossil fuel companies. These communities fear – legitimately – for their future.
The challenge to these communities isn’t unique to the Climate Law in our Hands campaign. A global transition away from oil and gas will affect communities like Fort St. John and Dawson Creek dramatically (and negatively, if there’s no clear plan to find workers new jobs in a new economy).Even with a plan, this huge transition may seem pretty scary.
Demanding that fossil fuel companies take responsibility for their products does not necessarily mean shutting down all oil and gas development tomorrow (and for some non-emitting products, at all). It means that these companies have to start making business decisions that reflect the true costs of their products. And it forces all of us to make uncomfortable links between impacts like the wildfires that BC experienced, the fossil fuel industry and our collective dependence on oil, gas and coal.
But talking to these local government officials did get me thinking: are there opportunities for this campaign to better support workers in the transition to a low carbon economy, while continuing to ask tough questions about the relationship between these products and climate costs? I’d welcome your thoughts in the comments section below.
At the end of the day, I am hugely grateful that the Resource Municipalities Coalition – and other local government officials on both sides of the debate – took the time to meet with me. It put faces to some of the people who feel that they may be impacted by our work, and allowed me to better understand their concerns.
It is especially important to build bridges when we are engaged in controversial efforts that take on powerful corporations. At times like this, we need controversy and conflict, not for their own sake, but because they open up the potential for collaboration and change.
As the business strategist, Cheryl Heller, has written:
[C]hange, at any scale and in any context, has its corollary rough side. It requires us to face reality and confront it – to ask things of other people they may not want to give. It requires assuming power and leadership that others may think they own. It requires that we be masterful communicators and always, it requires that we face the differences of opinion and emotion and agendas among the equally passionate people who have visions different from our own. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be change and if it’s not change, then why are we wasting time on it?
Top photo: Delegates at the NCLGA conference, May 2019. (Photo: Andrew Gage)