Toronto should follow the lead of a handful of U.S. municipalities and sue major oil companies for the billions of dollars in extra costs the city could incur in coming decades from floods and storms caused by climate change, Councillor Mike Layton says.
“We could be on the hook for an enormous amount of money, into the billions as a city,” Mr. Layton said in an interview. “I am a firm believer in the notion that polluters should pay.”
Mr. Layton, a downtown politician and the son of the late former federal NDP leader Jack Layton, is moving a motion at this week’s council session that asks city bureaucrats to look into how much climate change is expected to cost the city and whether a lawsuit, similar to those launched by governments across North America against tobacco companies, is worthwhile.
The motion, seconded by Councillor Mike Colle, calls only for a staff report to come before council’s infrastructure and environment committee by the end of the year. Any legal action would be subject to subsequent votes.
The motion to at least study the idea has the approval of Mayor John Tory, although he has not yet endorsed moving toward a lawsuit.
“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,” Tory spokesman Don Peat said in an e-mail.
Several cities in the United States, including New York and San Francisco, have launched similar climate-change lawsuits against large oil companies. But U.S. judges have handed recent defeats to those cities, in cases already regarded by many as long shots. Last July, a federal judge rejected New York’s case, ruling that governments, not courts, needed to address climate change. Lawyers for New York and San Francisco have launched appeals.
Other Canadian municipalities have also been exploring the idea of climate-change litigation. In January, Victoria’s city council voted to ask the Union of BC Municipalities to consider launching a class-action lawsuit against oil-and-gas companies over climate-change costs.
According to Mr. Layton’s motion before Toronto’s city council, the Insurance Bureau of Canada says the Greater Toronto Area has faced six “100 year storms” since 2005 – storms that have caused millions in flooding another damage.
The storm that swamped much of Toronto in July, 2013, and saw GO trains stranded in the flooded Don Valley caused $940-million in insurance claims, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, making it the province’s most expensive insured natural disaster. City of Toronto bureaucrats at the time pegged the municipal government’s own costs due to the storm at more than $60-million.
Keith Stewart, a senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada, which has been campaigning for cities to launch climate-change lawsuits, said recent revelations about how major oil companies sought to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change for decades means filing legal action over greenhouse gases would be more than just a political statement.
“This is absolutely a real thing. When you look at what New York, San Francisco, Oakland are doing, they are basically building this all on the tobacco precedent,” Mr. Stewart said. “Ontario is suing the tobacco industry for $50-billion. That’s real money.”