Suing oil companies for Toronto’s climate costs isnt so far-fetched

Climate change is Torontos billion-dollar problem. The 2013 flash floods that put the King Street streetcar underwater and caused GO.

Climate change is Torontos billion-dollar problem.

The 2013 flash floods that put the King Street streetcar underwater and caused GO trains to be evacuated by police boats cost about $940 million in damages. Floods and windstorms in the Greater Toronto Area since then have cost millions more.

This week, City Council will debate a motion by Councillor Mike Layton suggesting a solution. Laytons motion asks to do two things: first, put a price tag on what climate change will cost Toronto and second, explore suing oil companies for their share of those costs.

Councillor Layton is taking some heat from conservative commentators for this proposal, but Mayor John Torys office is at least open to a discussion. The Mayor supports understanding those costs and sees no downside to understanding possible options to recover those costs, says a spokesperson.

Toronto isnt the first city to consider going after big polluters for the costs of climate change.

A growing number of claims are being pursued around the globe, including in three of the biggest cities in North America New York, San Francisco and Baltimore. These cities are refusing to pay the whole price for oil companies misbehaviour and are choosing instead to shift some of those costs of dealing with climate change from taxpayers back to the companies most responsible.

The largest 25 fossil fuel producers on the planet are responsible for more than half of human-caused emissions since 1988. Oil companies have known for 50-plus years that their products were contributing to climate change. They could have adjusted their business plans to avoid this threat. Instead, they launched multi-million dollar public relations campaigns to cast doubt on the science to prevent or delay policy action that would reduce demand for what theyre products. Theyre still spending about $200 million a year on lobbying to delay effective action on climate change.

We all have a role to play in solving the climate crisis, but some are more responsible than others. Canadian cities like Vancouver and Victoria, haunted by the spectre of rising sea levels, are taking note and are having similar conversations as Toronto.

These kinds of legal actions also send a signal to governments that they cannot be complicit in the misdeeds of oil companies by offloading the costs of climate change onto their citizens. They also signal to investors that irresponsible (and arguably negligent) behaviour comes at a cost.

Courts have helped shape corporate behaviour through litigation cases brought by individuals as class actions, consumers and shareholders. It took years for plaintiffs in the U.S. to win against Big Tobacco companies who misled the public about the health impacts of cigarettes. But eventually state governments and survivors won a $206 billion USD settlement and tobacco companies were banned from certain types of advertising, limiting their ability to influence public policy.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the polluter pays principle in the Redwater ruling, which holds that bankrupt oil companies in Alberta cant shift clean-up costs to governments in order to pay back debtors.

The courts have a history of doing what politicians cant or wont. In fact, Canadas courts have been instrumental in shaping our society, whether it be validating marriage equality, putting limits on hate speech or upholding Indigenous rights. They are often the last line of defense in safeguarding our rights and well-being, especially when it is politically expedient for governments to ignore them.

The city of Toronto deserves to be compensated so we can properly protect ourselves from the ongoing harms of climate change and safeguard our future. Holding oil companies accountable wont be easy and wont happen with a snap of the fingers. The things worth fighting for rarely are. But Torontonians (present and future) stand to lose a lot more by not trying.

Priyanka Vittal is the Toronto-based legal counsel for Greenpeace Canada.


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