Climate impacts cost Ontario, Canada billionsThe costs of climate damages in Ontario, Canada could run into the billions, prompting a new liability bill by a member of the provincial parliament. Photo credit: Santoshsurneni Photography via Flickr

By Karen Savage

A Canadian legislator introduced a bill on Monday to protect Ontario residents from the costs of climate change-related damages and to make it easier to force fossil fuel companies to pay for infrastructure improvements needed to protect communities from climate impacts.

“This act will give Ontarians the legal means to seek compensation from the world’s major polluters for their fair share of those costs,” said Peter Tabuns, a Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) representing Toronto-Danforth, who introduced the bill.

Known as the Liability for Climate-Related Harms Act of 2018, Tabuns said the bill is similar to tobacco liability legislation used to hold tobacco companies liable for the health costs of tobacco use.

“This bill defines the nature of evidence to be produced and it simplifies this whole action,” said Tabuns, who said the bill is structured to assume strict liability on the part of producers.

“There is an assumption in this bill that climate change is caused by man-made action—the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere—and it sets a threshold for determining whether a particular event has caused damage,” said Tabuns, adding that the threshold would be consistent with the one established internationally.

“This Bill appears to be the first in the world to directly impose strict liability—liability without proof of fault—on fossil fuel companies for climate impacts,” said Andrew Gage, staff lawyer for the West Coast Environmental Law Association (WCEL), which endorsed the bill.

In 2015, WCEL and the Vanuatu Environmental Law Centre co-published Taking Climate Justice Into Our Own Hands, which highlighted the legal authority of legislators to enact climate compensation laws like the Liability for Climate Harm Act.

Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist for Greenpeace Canada, said the bill is modeled on legislation that enabled the province to pursue $50 billion in health care costs from the tobacco industry.

“That legislation was enacted because tobacco companies knew about the addictiveness of cigarettes and the health damages they caused, they deceived the public by misrepresenting the risks, they failed to warn the public about the dangers of smoking and they did not take all available steps to reduce the risks caused by their products—all of these things are true with respect to fossil fuel companies and climate change,” said Stewart, adding that investigative reporting has revealed the extent to which Exxon and the oil industry engaged in climate deception.

According to Stewart, lawsuits and other actions—such as the legislation being introduced today—are being driven by the ability of scientists to pinpoint the contributions of individual companies to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and to establish a causal link between burning of fossil fuels and impacts like sea level rise and the severity of individual events, such as the massive floods in Houston last year during Hurricane Harvey.

“Increasingly, people are going to find they aren’t going find to be able to obtain insurance against flooding risk—right now, that’s your tough luck,” said Stewart, who added that if passed, the bill will change that by making it easier to hold accountable the companies that played a significant role in climate change.

Kristin Casper, litigation counsel for Greenpeace’s global justice and liability campaign, said the bill is about protecting communities.

“We need this type of legislation to make it easier for people who are being harmed from climate change to hold big polluters accountable so that they pay their fair share for protecting our communities,” said Casper.

“There is a wave of climate lawsuits sweeping the world and today there is an opportunity for Ontario to take the lead in proactively addressing the inevitable and massive costs of climate change,” she said.

Municipalities in the United States from New York City to California have filed climate-related suits against fossil fuel companies. Additionally, 21 young people are suing the U.S. government in the landmark case Juliana v. United States for violating their right to a safe and livable climate. Related legal actions are taking place in Ireland, Peru and the Philippines.

“Climate change is already underway, but because of the inertia of the climate system and the delayed response, it is today’s young people and their children who are most threatened,” said Dr. James Hansen, professor and director of the Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions at Columbia University, whose granddaughter is one of the Juliana plaintiffs.

“Actual phase-down of carbon emissions and justice will only occur when fossil fuel companies must pay for costs of climate change so they have incentives to become clean energy companies,” said Hansen, former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who called the bill to protect Ontarians an important step in the right direction.

Tabuns, a former executive director of Greenpeace, said no one has calculated the total cost of climate-related damage to the province, but that storm damage in Ontario exceeded $1 billion in 2013 and costs to protect the province from future damages are expected to run well into the billions.

“The world’s largest fossil fuel corporations have to start paying their fair share of the damages that are going to be inflicted by climate change and they also have to pay for the steps necessary to protect people from those climate damages,” said Tabuns.

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