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Climate and Accountability

Updated: Jan 15, 2019

Last December, West Vancouver Council voted 5-2 to send letters asking the world’s 20 biggest fossil fuel companies to pay their “fair share” of the costs incurred upgrading municipal infrastructure to withstand the impacts of climate change. For those with an open mind and willing to take the time, I want to explain why I voted in favour.

When we were first approached with a request to send the letters, I was conflicted. It seemed like a partial measure. It didn’t seem like it would be very effective. Also, I didn’t think it was fair to hold oil and gas companies solely responsible for climate change.

I would not have proposed such a motion. However, once it came before Council, I had to make a decision. I know and respect the people making the request and took it seriously. So, I asked for time to more carefully consider the matter and revised the letter to make it clear we were asking companies to account for only their share of the problem. It seemed like a reasonable message.

Over the past month, we have taken a beating from some people who are critical of Council’s decision. We aren’t alone. Whistler’s mayor received such a negative response that he felt is necessary to issue a harried apology on camera. As a result, I have spent considerable time reflecting on these criticisms and re-evaluating my own decision. My position remains unchanged.

I accept the science. Climate change is human-influenced and perhaps the greatest threat to humanity. We have a moral duty to do what we can to address this threat and it will be far costlier in the long-run if we don’t take meaningful action now. I recognize some may disagree with this starting point but I don’t have the time, energy or inclination to debate these points.

If you accept the problem of climate change, then how best to address it?

Climate change is, in many respects, the result of market failure. The prices of fossil fuels do not reflect the longer-term impacts and costs from their use. Companies can sell oil and gas at artificially low prices because the broader, long-term costs of using these products are borne by others or “externalized”. As a result of low prices, people consume much more of the commodity than they would otherwise, and the costs compound.

The market-based response to this problem is to ensure fossil fuel prices accurately reflect the future societal costs associated with using them. Accurate pricing provides the incentive to act more efficiently (i.e. use as little oil and gas as possible). One way to accomplish this goal is by imposing revenue-neutral carbon taxes, a strategy supported widely by, among others, Preston Manning, the Business Council of Canada and the current Nobel prize-winners in economics. Another way to achieve the same goal is to hold fossil fuel producers financially responsible for the negative impacts of their products. Both of these approaches are consistent with the well accepted principle of “polluter pay”. Either way, the higher costs of consuming the product will better incorporate the formerly “externalized” costs of climate change.

This concept isn’t particularly radical. Indeed, it is a quintessentially conservative approach to the problem. Yet, Council’s decision to advocate for this approach has provoked outrage in some quarters.

Some say it is unfair to target oil and gas companies because many other products contribute to climate change.

This is true, in part. Other industries, such as the coal industry, should also be held responsible for the impacts of climate change. However, this is not a reason to hold off sending letters to the 20 biggest oil and gas producers, who have an unquestionably significant impact. It is a reason to send more letters, and to hold others to account (including governments).

Others say that it is unfair to hold oil and gas companies accountable for contributing to climate change because they “only” produce the products, the products are a necessity and we choose to use them

This misses the point. Holding oil and gas companies responsible for the impacts of their products, or imposing a carbon tax, should not be viewed as a punishment. Rather, it is a way to encourage oil and gas companies to take climate change more seriously and to incorporate the financial costs of climate change into the price of their products. Ultimately, increased costs imposed on oil and gas companies (or carbon taxes imposed by government) will be passed on in the form of higher prices, to consumers, who will either pay more or find ways to use less. Over time, higher prices will result in reduced consumption. This is the goal. If we don’t reduce the consumption of oil and gas, among other products, we don’t have a hope of addressing climate change.

Fairness, like beauty, is also in the eye of the beholder. Is it more fair to ask residents to pay 100% of the costs arising from the climate change or, alternatively, to ask those in the fossil fuel industry that have long richly profited from the sale of the very products that are contributing to climate change? Why should those residents that do everything they can do to minimize their carbon footprint bear the financial burden of a problem disproportionately caused by others?

What about those that rely on the fossil fuel industry?

Fully accounting for the costs of climate change will no doubt impact industry employment and profits that have supported communities and funded vital government programs for many years. There is no way around that if we are going to transition to a lower-carbon, more sustainable future. From a societal perspective, these short-term challenges have to be weighed against the long-term costs. In the future, the crushing costs of managing and adapting to climate change will far outstrip the immediate benefits provided by maximizing the production of oil and gas.

There are many precedents for governments deterring the use of valuable products that have negative long-term impacts. Asbestos is one example. For decades, asbestos was a valued commodity used in a vast array of industries and products. Production peaked worldwide in the 1970s creating millions of jobs and billions of profits. However, asbestos use quickly plummeted when the health risks of exposure became apparent. By 2005, asbestos was banned in virtually all developed countries. Few would argue that the need to preserve jobs and industry profits was worth incurring the severe health impacts over the long-term. In the same way, our economy will need to adapt and transition to lower oil and gas revenues, profits and related employment. It will not happen immediately, and we will have to provide assistance to those undergoing the transition. Newer technologies, industries and employment opportunities will emerge.

“You are all hypocrites!”, accuse some people. “You drive cars and fly in planes! Your community is sustained by oil and gas money!”

These heartfelt arguments are flawed. First, entitlement to speak out is not contingent on perfection or moral purity. Were Americans obliged to remain silent about apartheid even though they had their own shameful history of racial discrimination? Second, it simply is not hypocritical to advocate for higher oil and gas prices while simultaneously using these products. Climate change is a collective problem requiring collective action. Leaving the matter up to individual action will never work – there will always be “free riders”. We must seek to ensure that all of us who consume oil and gas pay the true costs of these products and have the incentives to reduce the impacts. It would only be hypocritical if those seeking climate accountability were unwilling to be accountable for the true costs of their own actions

Some have asserted that it is not Council’s role to take a stand on such issues or that, if we are going to do so, we must first consult with and seek the agreement of our constituents.

I disagree. Climate change is a local issue. All municipalities, especially West Vancouver, face mounting costs related to rising sea level, droughts and more frequent forest fires. We are already experiencing the effects of climate change first hand and we have responsibility to safeguard the future of the community.

Given the limited ability of municipalities to raise revenues through taxes, I fear we will be unable to adequately protect our communities. The city of Vancouver has estimated it will have to spend $1 billion this century to prepare for coastline flooding. Seeking compensation from responsible companies along with and tax revenues from senior levels of government will be necessary if we are going to meet these challenges.

In any event, politicians at all levels advocate for what they believe in, whether or not the matter strictly falls within their jurisdiction. The Mayor wrote the climate accountability letters in her own capacity, not on behalf of every West Vancouver resident. Residents are free to voice their own opinions.

Finally, others question the timing of Council, noting the economic pressures on Albertans and the growing friction between our two provinces.

In response, I say there is no better time to raise this issue. We are, at present, engaged in a fierce debate - locally, nationally, and internationally – on the issue of climate change. On one side, there are those who still persist in denying the problem or questioning the utility of responding or obstructing any meaningful action. On the other side, there are those who accept the problem, appreciate the need to act, and are working towards solutions.

In this contest, it would be irresponsible for those of us who have a public profile, and feel strongly about the issue, to fail to speak out. I am truly frightened about the future we may be leaving for our children and grandchildren. We are all accountable for our actions and the world we create and leave behind. The sooner we acknowledge this and get on with the hard work ahead, the better.

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