05/06/2019 16:59 EDT | Updated 05/06/2019 17:12 EDT

Canadians Are Paying The Cost Of Climate Change. Will Big Oil?

Oil companies should be held liable for their share of climate-fuelled weather disasters.

"Après nous, le déluge."

After us, the flood.

It's a French expression attributed to Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of 18th-century French monarch King Louis the XV, or, alternatively, to the king himself. Said to have been uttered after a particularly disastrous loss in battle, the expression's been taken to mean that the king didn't care about the fate of the country after his death because, well, he'd be gone.

It's not a noble sentiment, but it's a familiar one. For as today's world grapples with a choice between continuing to pump out fossil fuels or transitioning to clean energy, the words feel rather apropos.

In recent weeks, flood waters have submerged large swaths of Eastern Canada. Communities in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick have declared states of emergency and the armed forces have been deployed to assist.

About 10,000 people have been forced to leave their homes. Faced with the "new abnormal" of climate change, some families must even decide whether to return to their homes, and deal with the possibility of annual disaster-level flooding, or abandon their homes permanently.

These floods graphically illustrate some of the costs of climate change. It costs an average of $40,000 to repair a flooded basement, but there is also a human cost in the form of stress and lost work time.

All this is happening as the provincial government in Ontario seems to be doing all it can to make the problem worse. After gutting the province's greenhouse gas-reduction plan last fall, Premier Doug Ford's first budget cut funding to conservation authorities for flood prevention in half. It also cancelled the tree-planting program (trees also help prevent floods by helping rain filter into the soil rather than flow directly into streams and rivers).

Municipal governments bear the brunt of these cuts. They are also on the front lines of dealing with climate impacts, like floods.

But should they?

Two men paddle along Jacques-Cartier Street, past sandbagged and flooded homes in Gatineau on May 2, 2019.

Oil companies known for more than 50 years that the use of their products would contribute to climate change, but tried to mislead us by funding climate change denial. They delayed climate action, turning a bad situation worse and creating the crisis we're in today.

And they're still at it. Companies like Exxon, Chevron and BP spend millions of dollars every year lobbying to delay, control or block climate policies. Canada's main oil industry association refuses to back a carbon tax and is still banking on rising oil demand and production even though that only happens in future scenarios where climate change spins out of control.

Barely a week ago, the Globe and Mail revealed that oil executives and lobbyists recently met privately with federal Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer and the head of his election campaign team "to map out strategy for ousting Justin Trudeau's Liberals in a sign of growing collaboration between the Alberta-based sector and its political backers ahead of the federal election this fall." The closed-door event reflects the deep ties between federal Conservatives and more activist elements of the Alberta-based oil industry that blame Liberal policies on issues such as pipelines, and climate change for job losses and investor apathy.

Industry is raking in the profits even as floods change Canadians' lives, typhoons ravage the Philippines, and wildfires burn bigger than they ever have before. Extreme weather events like we're experiencing now are only going to get worse if we don't get emissions control in the next 11 years. At best, the oil industry appears nonchalant — at worst, callous.

"Après nous, le déluge."

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer speaks to supporters before a door-knocking event for volunteers in the Kanata suburb of Ottawa on April 25, 2019.

But against this backdrop of the ongoing flooding, Toronto's City Council took action to safeguard residents from climate-fuelled weather disasters.

On April 25, a motion proposed by Councillor Mike Layton was unanimously approved by Toronto's Infrastructure and Environment Committee. One fairly modest proposal asks council investigate the costs of climate change to the city. It's vital to assess the long-term cost implications of climate change to municipal infrastructure (like storm damage to roads, sewer systems and power grids) and programs (like costs to public health from longer and stronger heat waves).

A second proposal the motion makes is to investigate legal avenues to pursue compensation for these costs from major greenhouse-gas emitters. This could include lawsuits that seek to hold fossil fuel producers accountable in the same way that tobacco companies have had to pay a portion of the health-care costs for treating smokers. In exploring those options, Toronto is following the lead of cities like New York, San Francisco and Baltimore that have already launched legal actions against major oil companies.

We are all implicated in fossil fuel use and the resulting greenhouse-gas emissions. Yet there are three main reasons why fossil fuel producers are potentially liable for paying a share of municipal climate costs.

  • First, scientists are now able to identify and quantify the part human-caused climate change plays in many types of extreme weather.
  • Second, fossil fuels are produced and sold by relatively few players. We know that the 25 biggest coal, oil and gas producers are collectively responsible for over half of emissions since 1988, and experts now know the relative share of emissions that can be attributed to individual companies and, thus, the share of damages from individual events that can be attributed to climate change.
  • The third reason has to do with who knows what and when. The history of tobacco, asbestos and other hazardous products shows that companies can face substantial legal liability for misleading the public, the market or the government about the risks of their products or the availability of safer alternatives. Rather than warn the public about what they knew, oil companies spent millions on public relations campaigns to cast doubt on the science and delay the transition away from fossil fuels.

Adding insult to injury, some of these firms privately chose to build their offshore drilling platforms even higher in anticipation of rising sea levels, while publicly declaring that climate science was too uncertain to justify government action.

Just as in the dystopian world of the MaddAdam trilogy created by Margaret Atwood, our world has had to grapple with the conflict between the oil industry and environmentalists. Unlike that world, however, we can surmise that our failure to address the climate emergency won't end in a waterless flood.

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The choice of what to do next isn't between worshipping oil and joining an eco-cult. The solutions are a lot more pragmatic. Holding oil companies accountable for their fair share of the costs is part of it.

There's hard work ahead. Toronto's taken the first steps. It's up to others to follow.

Keith Stewart, PhD, is the Senior Energy Strategist at Greenpeace Canada and he teaches a course on energy policy at the University of Toronto.

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