Toronto will consider suing oil companies for climate damagesToronto could be the next major city to file a climate liability suit to recoup climate costs from the fossil fuel industry. Photo credit: City of Toronto

By Marco Poggio

Toronto became the latest city to explore possible litigation to make fossil fuel companies pay for the costs of climate change, joining an accountability movement spurred by cities in North America.

The city council’s Infrastructure and Environment committee passed a motion on Thursday that had been filed by City Councillor Mike Layton in March. It directs the city to consider suing greenhouse gas emitters for billions of dollars in adaptation and repairs cost to confront the challenges of increasing extreme weather events, like the floods that swept the city in 2013, and other climate impacts.

“It had gotten to a point where it was kind of a white noise in the background, ‘Yes, we have to do something about climate change.’ It became so abstract. And then it all changed when I had kids and started realizing that we’re actually running out of time,” Layton said during a debate preceding the vote.

Layton said climate change will present the city with budget challenges in the years to come.

”We have to make sure that those that are profiting pay their fair share,” he said.

The motion asks the city staff to report back to the city council about the cost of making the city resilient to extreme weather events, which have grown more frequent and more damaging with rising global temperatures. The city can then seek compensation for those costs in litigation.

“For decades and decades, there has been an industry that has been made out of blurring the line between greenhouse gasses, fossil fuels and climate change—much like they tried to blur the line between cancer and smoking,” Layton said.

Keith Stewart, a senior energy strategist for Greenpeace Canada, called the move a “great thing, a big step forward” and urged the city to be bold.

“My main advice to the city is be courageous, because that is what is required in these times of climate crisis,” he said, adding that it’s crucial that the city begins to quantify the investments necessary to protect its residents.  

“Climate change is impacting Toronto and is going to get worse,” he said. “Asking staff to report back on the long term costs of climate change and options to finance those costs is the only responsible option.”

Cities and communities in the United States, including New York, Oakland, San Francisco and Baltimore, have sued fossil fuel companies in a bid to make them accountable for climate change-related costs.

Municipalities in Western Canada have begun to follow in their footsteps, with Victoria already considering litigation and Vancouver declaring a state of emergency in January. Victoria’s government passed a resolution asking the Union of B.C. Municipalities to discuss a possible class action lawsuit against the 20 largest fossil fuel companies.

West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL), an environmental law advocacy group, has led an accountability campaign across western Canada, prodding 21 local governments to write accountability letters to the companies responsible for the world’s carbon dioxide emissions demanding them to pay a portion of climate change-related costs.

“I’m delighted to see Toronto taking these first steps,” said Andrew Gage, a lawyer and campaigner with WCEL. Gage called the city’s move “common sense” and added that it would be irresponsible for an elected official not to look into all the available options, including litigation, to absorb some of the costs.

Gage said the fight for climate accountability should involve all communities around the country and the world. WCEL has shared notes and knowledge with Greenpeace Canada in a bid to bring Toronto, Canada’s financial capital and most populous city, in line with cities and municipalities already taking on Big Oil.

The city’s political support for climate change measures has grown in the last decade, as Toronto experienced a succession of destructive extreme weather events.

Between 2000 and 2012, the city was hit by three 100-year rain storms. In 2013 alone, the city spent $940 million, taking about $65 million out of its capital budget and operating costs, to cover damages caused by floods.

Added together, floods in 2017 and 2018 cost almost $90 million in damages.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada, the national national industry association representing Canada’s private home, car and business insurers, estimated that flooding costs Canadians’ $600 million every year.

A report earlier this month by Canadian federal scientists and academics, titled Canada’s Changing Climate Report, said Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.

A 2017 study by the Climate Accountability Institute found that more than half the CO2 emissions in the atmosphere can be traced to 25 major fossil fuel corporations.

“Around the globe, citizens, communities and governments are taking legal actions against big polluters asking them to pay their fair share for the damager they’ve caused. This wave of litigation is gathering momentum,” said Priyanka Vittal, a lawyer at Greenpeace Canada, which lobbied Toronto’s city council to take climate action.

“These lawsuits are being taken seriously by polluters,” Vittal said. “So should the city of Toronto.”

Fossil fuel companies have begun to list climate litigation as risks to their shareholders, a sign that they feel vulnerable to possible legal downfalls.

Estair Van Wagner, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and an expert in property law, said it’s too early to know what litigation brought by Toronto against fossil fuel companies would look like.

Van Wagner referred to the lawsuits against the tobacco industry, which were litigated over negligence, misrepresentation and strict liability, as a possible model. But a more promising venue would be public and private nuisance, she said, because the costs would be easier to quantify.

“At this stage it’s unnecessary to determine which pathway Toronto should pursue. Indeed, the city should likely consider a combination of these causes of action and forms of accountability,” Van Wagner said.

The decision to start tallying climate change-related costs and considering litigation put Toronto on a collision course with fossil fuel companies, in a moment when public opinion in Canada has been turning in favor of accountability.

“It’s not about the oil guy in Alberta who might lose his job,” said Rosemary Boissonneau, a teacher and resident of Toronto. “The people who are making tremendous profit off of this—ruining our environment, ruining the environment in Alberta—they don’t care about that guy and his job.”

She told a room filled with elected officials that she supports the city’s effort to hold polluters accountable.

“This puts the blame where it belongs,” she said.

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