By Karen Savage
Toronto is the latest city to consider filing litigation to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate change.
City Councillor Mike Layton filed a motion on Friday that would ask Toronto city officials prepare a report on the long term cost of climate change to the city and to explore legal avenues to force major greenhouse gas emitters to pay for those damages.
In the motion, Layton said Toronto should explore joining New York, San Francisco and other major municipalities in seeking to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the costs of climate change.
“The city of Toronto will spend billions of dollars rebuilding the homes, businesses and municipal infrastructure damaged by ever-stronger floods, storms, heat waves and flash freezes,” Layton said. “We will spend even more proactively to make our city more resilient in the face of those impacts.”
Layton said the enormous threat of climate change should be enough for everyone to change their behavior, but corporations that have profited for decades from products they knew were destroying the climate must be held accountable. He said in an interview that this motion is a first step.
“It targets the very companies that profit off of our behavior—we have personal choices that we need to change, but those who are profiting off it have a particular debt to pay,” Layton said. “We need to know what are the costs we’re going to have to incur and then let’s take some of that cost from those who’ve profited for decades from damaging the climate—that’s pretty fair.”
If the motion passes, Toronto will join several other Canadian cities exploring ways to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the costs of climate change.
Earlier this year, Vancouver’s city council voted to declare a climate emergency and Victoria’s city council passed a resolution asking the Union of B.C. Municipalities to explore initiating a class action lawsuit against large fossil fuel companies on behalf of local governments. Twenty local governments have sent climate accountability letters to the world’s largest fossil fuel companies asking these corporations to pay a fair share of local costs. That initiative is being led by the environmental advocacy law group West Coast Environmental Law.
A bill to protect Ontario residents from the costs of climate change-related damages and to help force fossil fuel companies to pay for infrastructure improvements was introduced last year by Peter Tabuns, a Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) who represents Toronto-Danforth. The bill died without a vote last June, but has since been reintroduced.
“The motion before City Council is a not-to-be-missed opportunity for Toronto to ensure that the oil industry—which knew for at least 50 years that its products would fuel climate change—is contributing its fair share of the costs of dealing with the crisis,” said Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist at Greenpeace Canada, which supports the motion.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said he supports the motion and recognizes that climate change is an issue all governments must address, said Don Peat, a spokesman for the mayor’s office.
“Councillor Layton’s motion asks for a report on the long-term cost implications of climate change to the city. The Mayor supports understanding those costs and sees no downside to understanding possible options to recover those costs,” Peat said in a statement, adding that Tory’s main focus is implementing and funding TransformTO, which lays out the city’s long-term, low-carbon goals and strategies to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions.
Toronto is already experiencing costly climate impacts. Flooding in 2013, followed six months later by an ice storm that destroyed parts of Toronto’s electrical system, cost the city more than $1.3 billion. A wind storm in May 2018 cost more than $500 million in insured damages and extensive flooding later that year resulted in more than $80 million in insured damages.
“We’ll need to pay even more to make city infrastructure, transit, housing and health systems resilient to these kinds of disasters,” Stewart said.
Lawmakers could immediately approve or deny the motion at the next city council meeting, or could recommend it be reviewed by the city’s Infrastructure and Environment committee before the final vote.
“Just like tobacco companies knew their products caused cancer, but hid that information from the public, major oil companies have known for decades that their products would cause climate change,” Layton said.
“As tobacco companies have been held accountable for the health care costs associated with smoking, big polluters should have to pay their fair share for building a climate-safe city.”