On March 7, 2023 the Town of Gibsons Council heard from a delegation of its residents who are concerned about the costs of climate change. Dawn Allen and Alaya Boisvert, supported by friends and neighbours, spoke passionately about the ways that climate change is already harming Gibsons.
They pointed out that the community cannot afford to keep paying all of these costs while fossil fuel companies make huge profits selling the oil, gas and coal that give rise to climate change. They were supported by a powerful presentation by a student representative concerned about his future. And after hearing from them, the Council voted unanimously to work with other local governments to file a class action lawsuit against global fossil fuel companies, and to set aside $1 per resident for that purpose.
This inspiring effort took place just a week after Vancouver City Council considered a motion by Councillor Adriane Carr to follow through on a commitment made by the City the previous July to set aside $1 per resident for this same joint action with other local governments. As with Gibsons, speakers (including Fiona Koza from West Coast Environmental Law) at this February 28, 2023 meeting explained that the alternative to this case was that Vancouver residents would continue paying tens of millions of dollars in rising climate costs each year – a major source of the 10.7% increase in property taxes contained in the budget.
Vancouver’s Mayor and seven other Councillors from the ABC Party voted in a block to not put even one cent per resident to the effort. Councillors Carr, Pete Fry and Christine Boyle supported this climate action.
One win and one loss in a two-week period. On its face, the loss in Vancouver may be considered many times larger than the win in Gibsons; the $660,000 that Vancouver had previously promised towards the class action dwarfs the less than $5,000 that Gibsons pledged (note that the $1 per resident formula was always based on allowing municipalities of all sizes to participate in the lawsuit).
But at the same time, the win in Gibsons was dynamic, driven by a local community conversation about how climate change is harming Gibsons neighbourhoods. As such, it shows us why – despite Vancouver Council stepping back from this conversation – BC communities have no reasonable choice but to Sue Big Oil, and how people-powered, local campaigns are how to make it happen.
Sue Big Oil is a grassroots campaign
When the Sue Big Oil campaign launched in June 2022, we had no intention to rush to Vancouver Council and ask them to make firm commitments. The plan was to grow a grassroots movement of British Columbians who would talk to their friends and neighbours about just how expensive climate change was – in Vancouver and across the province – and why we need to make sure that our residents are not on the hook for 100% of those costs by making global fossil fuel companies pay their fair share.
In addition to providing the financial resources to help protect our communities, this strategy will ensure that those costs start showing up on Big Oil’s balance sheets. This will not only change their business decisions, but also reveal to investors, governments and the public the huge role that these companies played in causing climate change and keeping us hooked on fossil fuels, and the resulting invisible liabilities.
Early action in Vancouver
When Vancouver Councillor Adriane Carr, inspired by our launch, brought forward a motion in July 2022 that Vancouver set aside $1 per resident, we were delighted when it passed, but also caught off guard.
Did the public understand, as Carr and a majority of that Council did, that the alternative to litigation is huge tax increases for ordinary Vancouver residents as the costs of dealing with climate change (already tens of millions of dollars) continue to rise? Did people appreciate that, although litigation sounds expensive, by working together and bringing the case as a class action, local governments could keep the costs of a lawsuit manageable? Had it been explained that leading legal experts believe that there is merit to this case and it should be brought?
While we remain profoundly grateful for the leadership of Councillors Carr, Boyle and Fry, none of the groundwork had been laid to explain this to Vancouverites. There was still much to be done to build a constituency that would speak up when critics argued against the lawsuit, explaining that Vancouver Councillors have a responsibility to its residents to seek to recoup climate costs.
Since the July 2022 vote, the Sue Big Oil Vancouver Action Team has been hard at work building a movement to demand that the costs of climate change not be passed on to taxpayers without an effort to recoup a fair share from the fossil fuel industry. The team worked on the launch of the Sue Big Oil Party Kit, an exciting new way for British Columbians – especially youth – to talk about the importance of suing Big Oil with their friends and neighbours in a fun, engaging way. But Vancouver is huge, and it’s going to take a while for people to figure out that Sue Big Oil is not some symbolic action, but a tangible effort to protect their safety and their wallet.
When Vancouver’s 2023 Budget was finally voted on, the ABC Party majority voted to move up its approval by a week, apparently to avoid hearing from those concerned about the budget’s shortcomings. And there was a lot for residents to be concerned about: from the 10.7% increase in property taxes (much of which was linked to climate change) to the many things cut, including the $1 per resident that was Vancouver’s contribution to the joint class action. So, the efforts of the Vancouver Action Team to send letters and make phone calls to press Council to honour the City’s commitment were rendered meaningless by a Council afraid to hear from their residents.
Meanwhile in Gibsons…
By contrast, the Gibsons unanimous vote was the result of hard work and organizing by dedicated volunteers on the Sunshine Coast. They hit the ground running in the months after the Sue Big Oil campaign started, with a formal launch of their own on September 18, 2022. They invited several candidates for local office to the launch (many attended), at which several speakers explained the case for suing global fossil fuel companies.
After the October local government election, they looked at who had been elected in Sunshine Coast municipalities and what commitments they had made, and focused on Gibsons as the Council most likely to support Sue Big Oil. They then spoke with each individual Councillor, identifying and addressing concerns that each had.
When some Councillors expressed concern that they would not have support from the public, Sunshine Coast Sue Big Oil started canvassing, both in public spaces and by going door to door, to invite as many people as possible to sign the Sue Big Oil Declaration. Not only did they sign up almost 10% of the population of Gibsons, and over 1,000 people across the Sunshine Coast, but they also found that about 70% of the people they spoke with were willing to sign the Declaration – itself useful information for the Councillors who wanted to know that they had public support.
They asked West Coast Environmental Law, as the Sue Big Oil Secretariat, to work with them to co-host a talk by award-winning journalist, Geoff Dembicki, author of the Petroleum Papers. The well-attended event helped to educate their elected officials and residents about the active role that fossil fuel companies played in fighting to keep us hooked on their products and to block action on climate change.
They scheduled a delegation and arranged with one of the Councillors, Stafford Lumley, that he would move a motion based on the Sue Big Oil campaign’s demands after the delegation. And then they prepared as strong a delegation as they could.
Unlike the early win and subsequent loss in Vancouver, the Gibsons motion was driven by the community and the Sunshine Coast Sue Big Oil volunteers.
We are tremendously grateful to the Sunshine Coast Sue Big Oil team for their hard work, not just because of the win in Gibsons, but because they have demonstrated what is possible when hard working volunteers build the foundation for their community to Sue Big Oil. They have ground-tested canvassing materials which are now being adapted in other communities. They have been generous in sharing their time and insights with other Sue Big Oil Action Teams.
The Sunshine Coast Team has more work to do – including approaching other Councils in the region. But they have provided a model that they, and the rest of us, can use going forward.
By building broad public understanding that suing Big Oil is required to protect us from future climate impacts and tax increases AND that it helps fossil fuel companies and their investors incorporate the costs of climate change into their business decisions, it will be hard for future governments not to join Gibsons in working towards a class action lawsuit.