Tell big polluters to pay up
Flash flooding, raging wildfires, deadly heat waves: weather disasters like this are hurting people across Canada and will only get worse with climate change. Faced…Take action
On April 25, Toronto City Council’s Environment and Infrastructure Committee will consider a motion from Councillor Mike Layton asking city staff to report on two things:
- The long-term cost implications of climate change to City of Toronto’s infrastructure.
- Any legal avenues to pursue compensation for these costs from major greenhouse gas emitters, e.g. can Toronto sue oil companies (as New York and other cities are already doing) to recover climate costs.
In response to this motion, the Toronto Star ran an editorial arguing that when it comes to fighting climate change, we should focus on politicians not courts. The core of their argument was:
Oil companies have played a significant and shameful role in disseminating misinformation that casts doubt on the science of a warming Earth, and the link between carbon emissions and climate change. And they continue to bolster those who argue that dramatic action isn’t urgently needed.
But here’s the rub: plenty of politicians in Canada (and elsewhere) happily do the very same thing every day.
Governments have long known that burning fossil fuels comes with a cost that future generations may not be able to survive, let alone pay.
There’s no question oil companies produce a product that’s harmful to the environment. But it’s up to government to wean us off their products by supporting clean alternatives to the way we transport ourselves and our goods and heat and light our homes and businesses.
Our elected leaders aren’t doing that quickly or comprehensively enough. Worse, some are actively undermining the efforts of those who are trying to make progress.
These would be excellent points except for three things:
- We don’t have to choose between suing the polluters who have delayed action on climate change and pressuring the politicians who have allowed those delays.
- It is only fair that big polluters be held accountable for running decades-long campaigns to delay action on climate change that has resulted in greater damages, and the courts are the way we do that. The history of tobacco, asbestos and other hazardous products shows that those who mislead the public, the market, or the government about the risks of their products, or the availability of safer alternatives, can face substantial legal liability.
- Litigation and political pressure work best when done in concert. For example, the Star editorial correctly notes that some U.S. oil companies are finally supporting carbon pricing in theory (although they are still pouring millions into campaigns against specific carbon taxes). What the editorial misses, however, is that Big Oil’s support for a carbon tax is contingent on these companies being granted immunity from climate liability lawsuits like the ones launched by New York, San Francisco and Baltimore.
Oil companies’ decades-long campaign to cast doubt on climate science in order to delay action by governments — even as they were redesigning their own operations to protect against anticipated global warming — was modeled on the earlier campaign by tobacco companies to deny that smoking caused cancer (read Merchants of Doubt for a detailed history). The climate denial campaigns even employed the same PR company and ‘experts’ as tobacco.
Big Tobacco ultimately had to pay over US $200 billion to cover some of the health care costs of treating smokers in the U.S. and are currently being sued for CAD $50 billion in Ontario. Tobacco companies also had their ability to advertise and lobby governments severely restricted.
Greenpeace believes that Big Oil should face comparable consequences for their actions.
The hard truth is that we will all pay a heavy price for climate change, both in damages and to rebuild infrastructure to better protect ourselves against extreme weather. No one is saying that oil companies should pay all of the costs — Councillor Layton’s motion simply asks staff to assess what those costs are to Toronto, and to present City Council with options for making big polluters pay their fair share.