A countermovement to climate accountability campaign surfaces

Fort St. John's initiative critical of letter-writing campaign that Squamish voted to join

The City of Fort St. John is developing a countermovement to the controversial climate accountability campaign that Whistler and Squamish agreed to participate in last year.

That community's council approved a motion on Monday proclaiming it is "not an appropriate direction for B.C. municipalities" to engage in writing letters, passing resolutions and filing class-action lawsuits in the name of climate liability.

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"It comes across almost a little bit double-sided to drive in your car to work — or you're typing in your computer that was made from oil products — threatening a lawsuit on the companies that are ensuring that this is provided for us," said Trevor Bolin, the Fort St. John councillor who proposed the response.

Fort St. John's council is hoping its initiative will get recognized at the North Central Local Governments Association (NCLGA) and, eventually, provincewide at the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM.)

If this countermovement gains momentum, it could have some impact here in Squamish.

As part of the climate accountability campaign, Squamish was initially in favour of sending a letter that would ask the 20 largest fossil fuel companies in the world to pay for the costs of climate change in town.

Whistler already sent such a letter, and received a widely-publicized backlash from those companies that drew national attention.

Since the response to Whistler, Squamish Mayor Karen Elliott has promised to pen a message that has a softer tone. Instead of asking for payment, Elliott said the letter will "invite the fossil fuel companies to the conversation."

Regarding the possibility of Fort St. John's anti-climate accountability resolution being brought before the UBCM, Elliott said the Squamish council as a whole does not take positions on any particular resolution.

Individual councillors can vote however they wish.

"I would hope that all municipalities craft their resolutions in line with the most recent science in a manner that unites all of our communities in addressing the climate crisis," Elliott wrote in an email to The Chief.

With respect to Fort St. John's countermovement, Bolin said that it still acknowledges the need to shift to a low-carbon economy.

However, instead of demanding that fossil fuel companies pay up, Bolin hopes that community involvement and technological innovation will steer the economy into a more green-friendly direction.

He said people need to speak up more.

Further, implementing technologies such as landfill waste conversion would significantly reduce greenhouse emissions, he said.

Fort St. John isn't the only municipality up north denouncing the movement to make fossil fuel companies pay.

The mayor of Dawson Creek recently sent a letter to Squamish council.

"Contrary to the claims of the climate accountability campaign — here in Dawson Creek — we know firsthand all of the positive impacts the oil and gas industry is having on our community," wrote Dale Bumstead.

However, the initiators of the climate accountability campaign, West Coast Environmental Law and local group My Sea to Sky, say that their message is necessary.

Tracey Saxby of My Sea to Sky had some strong words in response to Fort St. John's campaign.

"It's really a bullying move by Fort St. John, because they're essentially trying to stop every other community in the NCLGA and B.C. in pursuing climate accountability," she said. "I don't think that's fair."

Andrew Gage, staff lawyer with West Coast, said that hoping technological innovation will drive a greener economy won't work unless there is a financial incentive.

He noted that fossil fuel companies had patents on low-emission vehicles as early as the 1960s.

"So this is an industry, that if it had an incentive to really innovate dramatically and change how we supply energy, has the capacity, the resources, the expertise," said Gage.

"But they didn't do it, and the reason they didn't do it is because it was pretty lucrative to continue doing what they were doing, which was to expand their reserves... So if you look at their past performance, we don't see a lot of evidence that they just develop technology because it's the right thing to do. An economist wouldn't expect them to."

He also noted the climate accountability campaign wasn't directed against Canadian companies, but rather the 20 biggest fossil fuel companies in the world.

Fort St. John and Dawson Creek councils don't necessarily mirror the views of everyone in north B.C.

Some communities are in favour of getting fossil fuel companies to pay the bill.

For example, the North Coast Regional District, which includes Prince Rupert, Port Edward, Queen Charlotte, Port Clements and Masset, has written a letter supporting the climate accountability campaign.

"Not only would it be unfair, it would be poor economics to insist that taxpayers cover all of the costs of climate change while your industry pays nothing beyond corporate taxes," wrote chair Barry Pages to the 20 fossil fuel companies targeted by the campaign.

"We ask that you pay your fair share of the climate costs incurred as the NCRD and its communities work to plan for, build and modify infrastructure and services to develop more climate change resilient communities. Similarly, if climate change harms our communities, we expect you to assist with the costs of rebuilding the community."

In an update from last September, West Coast Environmental Law said 15 local governments, plus the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities, wrote letters demanding fossil fuel companies pay for climate change costs.

Since then, more have agreed to be part of the campaign.

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