Holding oil companies accountable is way to encourage them 'to incorporate the financial impacts of climate change into the price of their products'

Craig Cameron
Aerial view of the Suncor oil sands extraction facility near the town of Fort McMurray. Some governments are proposing to ask oil companies to pay them for the cost of climate change damage caused by their products.
January 21, 2019
West Vancouver council has been criticized for voting to send letters to the world’s biggest fossil-fuel companies to hold them accountable for their “fair share” of the costs related to climate change. I want to explain why I voted in favour.
Human-induced 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 and, accordingly, people consume much more of the commodity than they would otherwise. The market-based response to this problem is to ensure fossil fuel prices accurately reflect the future societal costs associated with using them. One way to accomplish this goal is by imposing revenue-neutral carbon taxes, a strategy supported widely by those across the political spectrum. Another way to achieve the same goal is to hold fossil fuel producers financially responsible for the negative impacts of their products.
Some say it is unfair to target oil and gas companies because many other products contribute to climate change. Other industries, such as coal producers, should also be held responsible for the impacts of climate change. However, this is a reason to send more letters, not fewer.
Others say it is unfair to hold oil and gas companies accountable for the actions of consumers. This misses the point. Holding these companies accountable should not be viewed as a punishment. Rather, it is a way to encourage these companies to incorporate the financial impacts of climate change into the price of their products. Because increased costs imposed on oil and gas companies ultimately will be passed on to consumers, this will reduce overall consumption over time.
Fully accounting for the costs of climate change will undoubtedly impact employment, corporate profits and associated tax revenues. These short-term challenges have to be weighed against the crushing long-term costs we are facing. Our economy will inevitably need to adapt to lower oil and gas revenues, profits and related employment over time and we must assist those undergoing the transition.
While some people have called us hypocrites, it isn’t hypocritical at all to advocate for measures that will apply to everyone, including one self. Climate change is a collective problem requiring collective action. 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.
Climate change is a local issue. All municipalities, especially West Vancouver, face dramatic financial liabilities related to climate change — rising sea levels, droughts and more frequent forest fires — and have a very limited ability to raise revenues. Council’s role is to ensure the community has a sustainable future.
Finally, there is no better time to raise this issue. We are currently engaged in a fierce public debate — locally, nationally and internationally — on the issue of climate change. It would be irresponsible for those with a public profile and strong views to fail to speak out. I am frightened about the future we may be leaving for our children and grandchildren. The sooner we acknowledge we are all accountable for our actions and get on with the hard work ahead, the better.
Craig Cameron is a West Vancouver councillor.