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Andrew Gage is Staff Counsel and head of the Climate Change program at West Coast Environmental Law. Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.

Climate change is no longer a distant threat. Peer-reviewed science has already linked climate change to drought in Texas and Australia, extreme heat in Europe, Russia, Japan, and Korea, and storm-surge flooding during Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan.

Climate change is already causing about $600-billion in damages annually. Here in Canada, the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy estimated that climate change will cost Canadians $5-billion annually by 2020.

Canadian oil and gas companies could soon find themselves on the hook for at least part of the damage. For as climate change costs increase, a global debate has begun about who should pay.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu recently called on global leaders to hold those responsible for climate damages accountable. "Just 90 corporations – the so-called carbon majors – are responsible for 63 per cent of CO2 emissions since the industrial revolution," Tutu said. "It is time to change the profit incentive by demanding legal liability for unsustainable environmental practices."

So far, the fossil fuel industry has successfully opposed litigation for climate damages, brought in the United States by victims of hurricanes and sea level rise. But new areas of litigation often fail at first; in the 1980s, tobacco companies were still boasting that they "have never lost a case to a consumer, have never settled, and do not expect that picture to change." As the tobacco industry learned, changes to the interpretation and application of laws sometimes occur quite rapidly.

Nor is litigation in the U.S. or Canada the only thing the fossil fuel industry should worry about. It is becoming increasingly likely that companies could be sued by victims of climate change overseas, in countries with quite different legal systems. There, they might face lawsuits based on constitutional rights to a healthy environment, strict liability for environmental harm, or any number of other legal principles that don't currently exist in Canadian law.

Once a foreign court has ordered a Canadian company to pay for climate damages, that order is a debt – which Canadian courts can be asked to enforce. Chevron is currently fighting court actions in Canada, the United States and Brazil that seek to enforce a $9.5-billion award handed down by the supreme court of Ecuador – for pollution caused by oil spills.

Moreover, new laws could be introduced to facilitate climate litigation. When Canadian provinces encountered impediments to their ability to sue tobacco companies for public health costs, they eliminated those impediments by passing new laws. It's not hard to imagine countries impacted by climate change enacting new laws to clarify the liability of greenhouse gas producers.

Five companies traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange are among the "carbon majors" – Encana, Suncor, Canadian Natural Resources, Talisman, and Husky currently are collectively responsible for about $2.4-billion a year of global climate damages.

Canadians are broadly supportive of the "polluter pays" principle – the idea that those who cause pollution should pay for the harm. But because climate change has seemed far off, there has been relatively little discussion about who should pay. It has been assumed – by industry, politicians, even some environmental activists – that oil and gas companies can continue producing with impunity, at least until a global climate agreement is reached.

But rising climate costs cannot be born only by taxpayers and by those who suffer the impacts of climate change. We believe that a new global awareness of the moral and legal responsibilities of the carbon majors will lead to a wave of climate litigation. Foreign lawsuits – with damage awards that are potentially enforceable in Canada – will be difficult and expensive to defend.

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