Corp Comm Connects

Toronto considering legal action to make big polluters pay costs of climate change
April 26, 2019
David Rider

Big polluters including oil companies must pay “their fare share” of Toronto’s big and rising costs connected to climate change.

That’s the view put forward by Toronto Councillor Mike Layton, whose motion to explore legal action was unanimously approved by the city’s infrastructure and environment committee Thursday.

The Ward 11 representative argued individuals, governments and companies must share the burden of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the costs of dealing with flooding, ice storms, extreme heat and more, as well as the cost of infrastructure to protect the city and future generations.

“We know there are going to be more costs coming and who is going to pay?’ he told fellow members of the committee. “It’s going to be all of us ... we’ve got to make sure that those who are profiting, and have historically profited off it, pay their fair share.”

The committee passed an amended version of Layton’s motion, calling for a staff report on climate change costs for Toronto and “advice on any legal avenues to pursue compensation for these costs from major greenhouse gas emitters.”

Layton’s push to look at possible lawsuits against oil companies became an issue in the Alberta election when United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney seized on it as an attack on oil and gas industry jobs in his province and tied Layton, an NDP member, to then-NDP premier Rachel Notley.

Kenney, who later won a majority government, claimed credit for pressuring Mayor John Tory to keep the motion off the city council agenda, sending it to committee. Tory told Alberta media he doesn’t support suing oil companies.

At committee, Councillor Jennifer McKelvie, an environmental geoscientist and Tory ally, changed the motion, with Layton’s support, to include city staff also reporting on “partnership models between oil and gas companies and other cities internationally ... that are being used to combat climate change.”

McKelvie (Ward 25, Scarborough--Rouge Park) told committee: “There are lots of smart scientists who work in these oil and gas companies and we need to use that knowledge so we can move on to renewables (energy) and we can move on to biofuels.”

Her changes to Layton’s proposal also removed the need for the issue to go to Tory’s executive committee and city council, instead directing staff to start research and report back in late 2019.

While Layton (University-Rosedale) agreed to the changes, the councillor, who has a master’s degree in environmental studies, said he believes fossil fuel producers carry a lot of blame for climate change and, if they won’t volunteer to pay mitigation and remediation costs, must be forced.

“There has been an industry that has been trying to blur the line between greenhouse gases, fossil fuels and climate change, much like (tobacco companies) tried to blur the line between cancer and smoking,” he said, arguing the questioning of climate science has delayed action.

The Insurance of Bureau of Canada reported that damage from floods, windstorms, ice storms and tornadoes reached $1.9 billion in 2018, while a decade earlier severe weather annually cost about $400 million in damage.

Toronto has seen unusual weather including 2017 flooding that shut Toronto Island Park for three months, devastated waterfront areas and cost the city at least $8.45 million. Home basement flooding has also worsened, costing homeowners and the city that faces compensation claims.

Extreme heat contributes to the deaths of about 120 Torontonians per year, according to a 2018 greenhouse gas report by Ontario’s environmental commissioner, a position since scrapped by the Premier Doug Ford government.

Thirteen members of the public who addressed committee members all supported Toronto taking action on climate change, including taking oil companies to court to help shoulder costs.

They included Aviva Gale-Buncel, 18, who said she was inspired to become a climate change activist by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg.

“At the moment we do not know the whole detailed impact climate change has had on Toronto,” she said. “It is important to hold fossil fuel companies and major polluters accountable for putting profit and money over the lives of future generations.”

Rosemary Boissonneau said when oil company defenders “try to make it about the oil workers’ jobs against all of us lefties in Toronto, that’s where they’re sort of winning the argument, I think.

“But this (motion) puts the blame where it belongs, the people that need to pay front and centre, the people who are making obscene amounts of money while ruining our future.”

Tory recognizes climate change, supports the city’s TransformTO climate action change plan, and the need to know potential costs to Toronto, his spokesman Don Peat said Thursday, but he “is not in favour of the City of Toronto becoming involved in lawsuits against oil companies.

“He does not think those kinds of lawsuits advance the protection of the environment.”