Toronto Councillor Wants to Sue Big Oil For Climate Change Costs

Mike Layton wants Toronto to put an exact price tag on how much climate change will cost everyone in the city.
March 26, 2019, 6:30pm
Mike Layton is spearheading a potential climate change lawsuit against the biggest oil and gas companies.
Photos via Canadian Press

Toronto’s City Council could take the first steps towards a potentially massive lawsuit against Big Oil on Thursday. It would take aim at the world’s largest oil and gas companies and seek to make them foot part of the bill for climate change-related costs the city has to pay for. It’s modern-day David and Goliath stuff.

Leading the charge is Toronto City Councillor Mike Layton, whose motion is being put forward on Thursday; it has the support of the mayor and is likely to be passed. It calls for the creation of a report, expected by the end of the year, outlining the extra costs of climate change to the city of Toronto. Layton figures that price tag is in the billions and he says this entire movement to hold giant oil and gas companies accountable, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Some critics call it misguided political theatre that targets Big Oil instead of the motorists who can’t seem to cut down on driving gas-guzzling vehicles. But people who support the effort say it’s an important issue that deserves even more support.

Cities in BC have started looking into a similar initiative. South of the border, New York and San Francisco have already launched lawsuits, but they’ve been handed a string of defeats in court.

He cites stats from the Insurance Bureau of Canada that show the Greater Toronto Area has had six “100 year storms” (this refers not to a storm that only happens once in a century, but to a storm that has a 1 percent chance of happening in a year) since 2005. Layton’s motion suggests governments are spending three dollars to repair infrastructure for every dollar in insured damages to homes and businesses.

Layton spoke with VICE—using a hands-free device while cycling from one meeting to another in downtown Toronto—to explain why he wants the city to go after Big Oil.

VICE: How important is it to put a dollar figure on climate change-related costs?
Michael Layton: It’s very important. At its core, the argument is that cities are the ones that are taking on the cost of climate change. We are the ones that are going to have to pay for the increased frequency and severity of storms. Because we own most of the major infrastructure and we’re in the position now where we’re on the hook for a lot of unanticipated costs.

We need to quantify it so we can say, “Look, these companies made billions on billions of dollars and yet they are not responsible for the actual costs of climate change that they knew was going on.” Many of these companies had, for years, actively attempted to disconnect fossil fuel emissions and greenhouse gases from climate change and that’s where we enter a realm that has more legal standing because it’s not like we didn’t know. It’s similar to smoking… People were trying to hide the evidence.

Will we have to build infrastructure––roads, sewers, bridges, all of that––differently in the future if storms that we typically saw once a century are now happening much more frequently?
Definitely. That’s one of the major things that we’ve already had to start to look at. We’ve got to put our pipes to get our water further out into and deeper in the lake because of the additional impact on our water courses. There are significant costs associated with this.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada has done a lot of work around this, around severe storms. I think that highlights that this isn’t just someone standing out in the fringe and saying “Climate change is a problem and this is costing us money!” The core institutions of the country of Canada, the Sun Lifes of the world are starting to take notice and say, wait a second, we have to start insuring against these unforeseen impacts that are coming.

You liken this to the cases against Big Tobacco. This is different though, because with tobacco products it’s customers purchasing cigarettes or whatever and consuming them and suffering the direct impact of that on their health. With this, it’s harder to pinpoint exactly which companies are causing this. It’s harder to draw that straight line, right?
It is. That’s why we’re relying on cities in the US and the steps they’ve taken in identifying the top global emitters of greenhouse gas. Typically large oil companies and targeting them because they’re easier to identify.

There are other municipalities in Canada that have taken similar steps, like Vancouver and Victoria. What do you think of what they’re doing?
They’re exploring. Victoria asked the union of BC municipalities to start examining a similar approach. I think what you’ll find is as it gains popularity, more and more municipalities are saying, “Wait a second, we have hundreds of millions in infrastructure costs that we see coming. What are we going to do to fund those?” Rather than just assume that we’re going to have to cover it out of the rate base or the tax base or that the federal government will come to the rescue, that we should move ahead and join forces on a similar lawsuit.

How much of this is political statement versus real legal action?
I’d say that there’s a statement being made but I wouldn’t downplay the fact that we have hundreds of millions of dollars in state-of-good-repair and infrastructure upgrades that we are going to need to develop, that we’ll need to pay for. In all likelihood, a good chunk of it will have to do with climate change.

It makes sense that you look to those who profited off of the release of greenhouse gases and tried to hide the connection of greenhouse gases with climate change and we go to them and say, “You know what? You can’t just assume that we’re going to start paying for this. You’ve got to come in and pay for some of it yourself.” I believe that’s a fair approach.

I’m not sure if we’ll have a case in the end. I hope we will. I’m looking for that legal advice to say that’s a path that we could go down.

At the same time, if all we do here is raise the profile of greenhouse gases and climate change, then I’ll be prepared to take that as a victory in itself. Anytime we get to highlight and make the connection between GHG and the changing climate and the costs associated with it, that’s I think a good thing. Because people are going to have to start to realize that unless we do something major—really really quickly—we may miss our opportunity to address some major changes to the climate that will affect generations of people living all around the world.

Is that frustrating to you? When you talk about the impact of this on future generations, as a dad especially?
I made a decision early in my life, about what I was going to do and climate was at its core—protecting the natural environment was kind of this overarching thing. Climate is such a huge part of that. I made that decision from the moment I walked into my first day of university. It was going to be my thing. That’s what gets me excited, that’s the stuff I like to read.

When I had my two little girls, it just made it so much more urgent. If I don’t do absolutely everything I can—despite what toes I need to step on, what friendships I lose—this is important and I want my kids to be able to look back on my time and what my contribution was and say ‘my dad did all he could and there was not a moment where he bowed to Big Oil and other influences.’ I want them to know I fought for them. That’s what I want them to remember me by.

What do you think your late father, Jack Layton, would think of what you’re doing?
I’m vice-chair of the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, which he started 27 years ago… It was climate change work when it was at its infancy. And I bet you he was ridiculed.

He got ridiculed for some of the stuff he did around council for same-sex rights. Fighting for Toronto to take a greater position around fighting the AIDS epidemic. He fought to get rid of smoking in bars and restaurants. He did a lot of stuff that was unpopular. But when you reflect back, imagine what it would be like.

I smoked and worked in a bar but I loved the decision to take smoking out of bars. I felt better the minute it stopped. I just felt healthier. I think he’d look at this and say, “That’s a bold move, Mike. I hope you’re ready to back that up.” He’d be into it.

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