After Deadly Fires and Disastrous Floods, a Canadian City Moves to Sue Big Oil

LYTTON, British Columbia — Nothing has been rebuilt since flames devoured the tiny village of Lytton last year, turning it into a national symbol of climate change. It was in Lytton, about 90 miles northeast of Vancouver, that temperatures set a national record of 49.6 degrees Celsius — 121.3 Fahrenheit in Canada! — before the deadly fire erupted.

Blue fencing on either side of Main Street blocks off access to the ruins of the village. Charred trees, flattened roofs, collapsed walls and piles of debris stretch over the full length of the village center, the silence broken only by helicopters dumping water to try to extinguish more recent fires in the nearby mountains.

“It’s a flashback of what happened last year,” said Phyllis Speinks, 54, who was filling her truck up at a nearby gas station and had been evacuated for two weeks because of this summer’s fires. “I was afraid.”

The heat that started the inferno in Lytton killed 619 people in the province last year and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage. It has sent government officials scrambling for policies, tools and approaches they can use to steer the province away from more disasters by stemming the effects of climate change, which scientists believe contributed to the extreme heat and other destructive weather events of the past year.

Now, the region is fighting back. Vancouver’s City Council took preliminary steps in July toward suing major oil companies, seeking damages for the local costs of climate change.

The move, in a city that has been a leader of the environmental movement in Canada and was the birthplace of Greenpeace, would be the first lawsuit of its kind in the country against the fossil fuel industry, whose carbon emissions contribute to global warming.

Jay Averill, the spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said in an email that Vancouver “could not function today without the use of oil and natural gas.”

“Funding a lawsuit to sue the very industry that has invested billions of dollars in British Columbia over decades, created thousands of jobs and delivered billions of dollars in government revenues to support health care, infrastructure, and social programs across the province, is not an efficient use of taxpayer’s money,” he added.

In Lytton, with 90 percent of the village destroyed, about 250 out of its 300 residents are still scattered in surrounding communities.Credit…Melissa Renwick for The New York Times

The lawsuit’s proponents argue that energy companies should be held responsible for their share of Vancouver’s climate costs because they knew about their industry’s effects on climate change decades ago, but covered up evidence and lobbied against climate action. They point to a series of a catastrophic and rare weather-related events in the past year in the region as evidence.

Beside the fire, which killed two people in Lytton, a weather event known as an atmospheric river caused huge floods that isolated entire towns and thousands of people in a region east of Vancouver.

A tornado called a waterspout brought winds of up to 110 kilometers an hour, or 68 miles per hour, to the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver. High winds and major tides damaged Vancouver’s scenic sea walls in Stanley Park, which have become increasingly vulnerable to rising sea levels. Last December, unusual cold — 4 degrees Fahrenheit — gripped a city famous for its moderate climate.

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“I was born here, and we never had anything like this,” said Adriane Carr, a Vancouver city councilor who is helping lead the push for the lawsuit.

Ms. Carr helped found the Green Party in British Columbia in 1983, the first Green Party in North America. “The weather was very predictable,” she said. “We had lovely, warm summers, not too hot. Cool, wet rainy winters. It was probably the iconic city of temperate climate.”

Vancouver will have to spend 50 million Canadian dollars, or about $39 million, to repair last year’s damages from various natural calamities, Ms. Carr said.

“I was born here, and we never had anything like this,” said Adriane Carr, a Vancouver city councilor who is helping lead the push for the lawsuit.Credit…Melissa Renwick for The New York Times

Before the lawsuit can proceed, it would need to be approved by Vancouver’s next city council, which has elections scheduled this fall, and could also include other municipalities and environmental organizations.

The council’s move to lay the groundwork for a lawsuit came shortly after local environmental groups launched a “Sue Big Oil” campaign, urging local governments to file a class-action lawsuit against global oil companies.

“We cannot make the types of dramatic shifts that society needs to deal with climate change while the global fossil fuel industry makes hundreds of billions, trillions of dollars, of profit from selling the same products that are causing the problem,” said Andrew Gage, a staff lawyer at West Coast Environmental Law, a leader of the campaign.

British Columbia’s provincial government announced in June that it would spend more than a half-billion Canadian dollars over the next three years, roughly $400 million, on measures to adapt to a changing climate.

Local governments across the country will have to spend a total of 5.3 billion Canadian dollars a year, or $4.1 billion, on infrastructure and other projects to account for the effects of climate change, according to a 2020 report by the Insurance Bureau of Canada and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which represents more than 2,000 communities.

Dish ware in the remnants of a destroyed home in Lytton.Credit…Melissa Renwick for The New York Times

In the United States, dozens of municipalities, inspired in part by successful lawsuits against the tobacco industry, have taken legal action against oil giants seeking damages for climate change.

In what was considered a landmark case, environmentalists with Friends of the Earth won a significant victory in the Netherlands in 2021 against Royal Dutch Shell, Europe’s largest oil company.

A Dutch court ruled that Shell had to accelerate its reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, especially in the Netherlands, which is at risk of rising sea levels.

A lawsuit by Vancouver against fossil-fuel companies would be significant given the industry’s importance in Canada, one of the world’s top oil producers, said Kathryn Harrison, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia and an expert on environmental policies.

A mountain range outside of Lytton scalded by last summer’s forest fires.Credit…Melissa Renwick for The New York Times

“It’s important that a Canadian government is calling out the oil industry,” Ms. Harrison said. “The fossil fuel industry still holds a very privileged position in Canadian politics at the national level and in some provinces.”

Whether Vancouver pursues the lawsuit won’t be clear for months. The 11-member council endorsed a plan to set aside $1 for each of the city’s more than 660,000 residents in next year’s budget to finance the lawsuit.

The motion passed by a single vote, 6 to 5, with opponents arguing that such litigation was not within a local government’s jurisdiction. Elections scheduled for the fall could also alter the council’s dynamics. The new council would have to approve the financing plan for the lawsuit as part of the city’s budget.

“People thought it was silly to sue cigarette companies, so I think it’s in that vein,” said Kennedy Stewart, the mayor of Vancouver, who cast the deciding vote in favor of pursuing the lawsuit. “It’s hard being first.”

In Lytton, with 90 percent of the village destroyed, about 250 out of its 300 residents are still scattered in surrounding communities, living with relatives or others, according to the mayor, Jan Polderman.

Only four houses survived the fire in Lytton.Credit…Melissa Renwick for The New York Times

The Canadian government has promised to spend 77 million Canadian dollars, about $60 million, to rebuild Lytton, including homes, though most of the money will be used to build fire-resistant public buildings.

Lytton has been inhabited for centuries by Indigenous communities, and in the 19th century served as a home to Chinese railway workers and to miners during the Gold Rush. Today, it sits at the intersection of rail lines and highways, including the Trans-Canada Highway.

Surrounded by mountains and deep in the Fraser Canyon, the area has always been known for hot temperatures and summertime forest fires.

But last year’s heat dome brought temperatures that even Lytton had never experienced. International climate researchers said that the heat dome was an extreme weather event, which would have been at least 150 times rarer without human-induced climate change.

The national record of 49.6 degrees Celsius shattered the previous high in Lytton by six degrees, Mr. Polderman said.

Before the fire, Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman believed that climate change was “the next generation’s problem,” he said. “I don’t think that anymore.”Credit…Melissa Renwick for The New York Times

“We were now hotter than Las Vegas,” the mayor said as he worked on the deck of his home, located on a hill outside the village center that was not touched by the fire.

The day after Lytton broke the national record, a fire started in the late afternoon in the village center from a still unknown cause. Strong winds pushed the flames through Lytton, consuming it in less than two hours, Mr. Polderman said.

The mayor drove his Honda minivan through the village, exhorting skeptical residents to leave. He picked up the last straggler, a man running down a road with his cat in a cage.

Along with houses, Lytton’s lone hotel, restaurant, deli, coffee shop and elementary school, all burned down. Only the post office, the municipal pool and a government office survived.

Before the fire, the mayor believed that climate change was “the next generation’s problem,” he said. “I don’t think that anymore.”

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