In the Philippines, a Landmark Finding Moves Fossil Fuel Companies’ Climate Liability into the Realm of Human Rights

When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013, it made a direct hit on the hometown of Yeb Saño’s family. Saño,the country’s chief climate negotiator at the time, had to attend the United Nations climate change conference in Poland only days after the storm passed. As he addressed the other delegates, his brother was helping collect the dead.

“My brother remembered exactly how many bodies he picked up with his own hands,” Saño said. “Seventy-three dead bodies exactly.”

Haiyan ultimately killed more than 6,000 people in the Philippines and damaged more than 1 million homes, uprooting lives with devastation from which the country still hasn’t recovered. While the storm may have been an act of nature, Saño and others were convinced that humans, ultimately, were responsible.

In 2015, working with Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Saño sought to hold those people accountable, petitioning the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights to declare the world’s largest fossil fuel companies “accountable for either impairing, infringing, abusing or violating human rights” because of their contribution to climate change.

Earlier this month, the commission issued its conclusions. Saño felt vindicated. In a damning and lucidly-written report, the commission found that the world’s largest fossil fuel companies had “engaged in willful obfuscation and obstruction to prevent meaningful climate action.” The companies continue to deny climate science and try to slow a transition away from fossil fuels, the report said, driven “not by ignorance, but by greed.”

As the first national human rights body to weigh in on fossil fuel companies’ role in driving climate change, the commission determined that corporations have obligations under human rights law and can be held liable if they neglect them. While the commission has no power to compel companies or governments to act on its findings, legal experts said its report carries broad implications for other cases.

“This is a milestone for the narrative that climate impacts result in the infringement of human rights,” said Saño, now the executive director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia. “So this report means a lot to Filipinos who confront the adverse effects of the climate crisis. This means a lot for the pursuit of climate justice.”

Some of the companies named in the petition, which included Chevron, ExxonMobil and other major producers, sought to have it dismissed, the report said, arguing that the commission had no jurisdiction beyond its borders and that the topic reached outside its traditional realm of political and civil rights. But the commission rejected these appeals, determining that it had a mandate “to test boundaries and create new paths; to be bold and creative, instead of timid and docile.”

Some experts said the report’s impacts extend beyond the Philippines, increasing the legal risks that fossil fuel companies are facing from a raft of lawsuits around the world. Despite the commission’s lack of enforcement powers, legal experts said its findings provide new strength and evidence for cases that have already been filed and will help people file new challenges in courts and human rights commissions elsewhere.

“I think corporations, their boards, their leaders should really start taking this potential liability seriously,” said John Knox, an expert in international and human rights law at Wake Forest Law who testified to the Philippines commission. “This is the harbinger of much more to come.”

The commission’s multi-year inquiry and its final report are part of a growing effort globally to reframe climate change as a threat to human rights. Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council created a new special rapporteur on human rights in the context of climate change. Aside from better recognizing the impacts of warming on people’s health and well-being—now evident around the world in the form of more extreme weather—advocates of this framing say it provides a solid base for holding governments and corporations accountable if they fail to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Saño said he has been in touch with colleagues in other parts of Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe about the report’s findings.

“Many of them were just waiting for this to be completed,” he said, “and now that we have seen the culmination of the Philippines case it provides a lot of energy into those other possibilities.”

A Roadmap to Document Harm 

The Philippines is one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world, an archipelago south of Taiwan that is hit by an average of 20 cyclones each year, according to the commission’s report. The country has also contributed only a tiny portion of the greenhouse gases that humans have pumped into the atmosphere over the last century-and-a-half. The pairing of the Philippines’ vulnerability with its relative lack of culpability makes it a powerful venue for an inquiry into climate change and human rights.

In 12 public hearings and many hours of testimony, the commission gathered an exhaustive catalog of evidence about the science of climate change and its impacts, and fossil fuel companies’ efforts to sow doubt about that science as they lobbied against government attempts in the United States and other countries to reduce dependence on coal, oil and gas.

The petition by Greenpeace drew on the research of Richard Heede, who leads the Climate Accountability Institute and has published studies linking specific levels of greenhouse gas emissions to specific companies, the so-called “carbon majors.” According to Heede’s research, Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company of Saudi Arabia, is responsible for more emissions than any other company, with Chevron and Exxon close behind.

Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, which filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioners, said the new report was perhaps the most comprehensive compendium of all the research that has been published on fossil fuel companies’ role in driving emissions.

But what stood out, Muffett said, is that the report tied those greenhouse gas emissions to immediate threats to specific human rights of Filipinos, including their rights to life, health, food security and sanitation.

“Through every one of those rights, the commission pulls out witness testimony that says this was the lived experience of this,” Muffett said. “It is very much a roadmap to show how you document human rights impacts of climate change not only on entire nations, but on individuals and the communities who are being harmed, and that is, I think, extremely important.”

One chieftain from the southern Philippines testified that her people have been unable to practice traditional rituals based on seasonal rhythms because erratic weather has disrupted the once-predictable patterns. A rice farmer reported decreased harvests as a result of extreme heat.

One storm survivor told of losing three children, a son-in-law and four grandchildren to Typhoon Sendong in 2011. Veronica Cabe, one of the petitioners, spoke about the destabilizing effects of having her home destroyed by a storm.

“We felt displaced, we didn’t have our own space,” she told the commission. “We were forced to live with friends who were willing to share their homes with us. We were separated from each other.”

The commission held several hearings in New York and London, and traveled to the Netherlands, too, in a mostly-failed attempt to have some of the 47 fossil fuel companies named in the petition testify or meet with the commissioners.

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The report focuses in particular on arguments made by the American Petroleum Institute, the American coal industry and others, beginning in the 1990s, against efforts to limit emissions from fossil fuels, despite those organizations’ knowledge of the dangers of failing to do so.

In the report, the commission cites international human rights laws and standards to say that corporations, in addition to states, have obligations to protect human rights. It points to the continued financing of politicians who oppose climate action as evidence that fossil fuel companies are still working to deflect needed action. And it adds that financial institutions that fund fossil fuel production share in the responsibility and, potentially, liability for continuing to drive emissions higher.

Scott Lauermann, a petroleum institute spokesman, said, “At a time of rising energy costs and geopolitical volatility around the world, it’s more apparent than ever that we must both reduce emissions and ensure access to affordable, reliable energy for U.S. consumers, and that’s exactly what our industry has been focused on for decades” He added, “Any suggestion to the contrary is false.”

Creighton Welch, a spokesman for Chevron, said, “Chevron intends to be a leader in efficient and lower-carbon production of traditional energy—in high demand today and for years to come—while growing the lower-carbon businesses that will be a bigger part of the future.”

Todd Spitler, an Exxon spokesman, said the company was “developing comprehensive roadmaps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from our operated assets around the world and in support of society’s net-zero ambitions,” including investments in low-carbon technologies such as carbon capture and storage, hydrogen and biofuels. He added, “Our commitment to emissions reduction isn’t new; we have supported the Paris Agreement from its inception and made consistent progress on short- and medium-term emissions-reduction plans.”

A spokesperson for Saudi Aramco declined to comment.

The report was the first to be issued by a national human rights commission, and experts said it was only the second official finding to tie fossil fuel companies’ actions and responsibilities directly to the human rights impacts of climate change. Last year, a Dutch court ordered Shell to reduce its emissions in a ruling that drew in part on human rights laws.

Muffett and others said the report will add to a growing list of rulings and evidence laying the groundwork for holding specific companies liable for their role in fueling warming.

“What the commission is saying is there are adequate bases here for seeking to hold these companies liable,” Muffett said. “And I think that’s really significant because this report provides a pretty clear roadmap to human rights bodies and courts around the world, to then take up cases to do precisely that.”

In the report, the commission acknowledged that it had no enforcement powers, and instead was providing recommendations to companies and governments for how they could meet their obligations to protect human rights with respect to climate change. For companies, chief among those was halting the exploration of new oil and gas fields and contributing to a climate fund for mitigation and adaptation. The report said states must enact policies to make sure companies take these steps, and to penalize those that don’t.
Saño said he hopes the report would have immediate impacts in the Philippines, where the son of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. was just elected president on Monday. He said successive governments have failed to address injustices in the country, including the concentration of power in a small elite, that exacerbate the impacts of climate change. The new government has an obligation to better protect its citizens from the storms that hit its coastlines every year, Saño said, and “this really paves the way for a lot of change, we hope.”

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