Please listen to us: typhoon survivors appeal to fossil fuel firms

Have polluting companies breached the human rights of Filipino citizens? An inquiry in the Philippines is investigating, reports Isabella Kaminski
<p>Edited EUMETSAT image of Super Typhoon Hagupit next to the Philippines [image by: EUMETSAT, edited by Stuart Rankin]</p>

Edited EUMETSAT image of Super Typhoon Hagupit next to the Philippines [image by: EUMETSAT, edited by Stuart Rankin]

Survivors of devastating typhoons in the Philippines have appealed to major carbon producers to respect their human rights and act on climate change.

At an emotional hearing in London last week, the Philippines Commission on Human Rights heard personal testimonies from Filipinos who had suffered during recent extreme weather disasters. The commission also listened to expert testimony on climate change science, risk and law.

The inquiry is investigating whether the actions of 47 large coal, oil, mining and cement firms are breaching the human rights of Filipino citizens, including their rights to life, housing, health, food and self-determination, by extracting large volumes of fossil fuels or through carbon-intensive industrial processes.

It began in 2016 following a petition by Greenpeace South Asia and other local groups to investigate the issue. The commission held four sessions in the Philippines before expanding to New York and London because it wanted to hear evidence from a broader range of people and to raise the inquiry’s international profile.

Typhoon devastation

During the latest hearing at the London School of Economics, Veronica Cabe described how her Philippines home was devastated in 2009 by Typhoon Ketsana. Separated from her family, she had to wade waist-deep through floodwaters for seven hours to bring them dry clothes and pots of cooked rice and adobo. “When I finally saw them, I was happy because they were safe.”

The typhoon was devastating for the Philippines, leaving hundreds dead and causing billions of dollars worth of damage. Cabe spent the following months removing the mud that caked their home and trying to salvage anything that could still be useful. Her father caught leptospirosis and had to be treated in hospital. “I felt like part of our dignity was lost,” she said.

The panel also heard from a survivor of Typhoon Haiyan, the deadliest storm the country had ever seen. Marielle Bacason, who now works in London as a research nurse, described the emotional, social and physical impacts of the disaster on her family even five years later and said her priorities in life had changed. “Before, my worries were superficial but having that experience opened my mind.”

Typhoon Haiyan generated wind speeds of over 300 km/h and left 600,000 homeless [image by: EU/ECHO, Arlynn Aquino]
None of the 47 companies subject to the inquiry, which include Shell, Total, BP, ExxonMobil and Chevron, have appeared at the hearings despite being asked to present their views. However, several have challenged the inquiry’s jurisdiction over them in writing and argued that climate change is not a violation of human rights.

When asked if she had a message for respondents, Cabe said, “Maybe I can still appeal to the respondents: please listen to us. Consider our suffering.”

Holding companies accountable

The commission is an independent body tasked with investigating human rights violations in the Philippines. It does not have the power to hold the companies legally responsible or to fine them. But its report could inform the development of new laws in the Philippines, and it hopes that the body of evidence it develops will be used by policymakers, lawyers and climate campaigners around the world.

At its hearings, the commission was presented with attribution studies that calculate how much individual companies have contributed to global warming. Richard Heede of the Climate Accountability Institute explained how his landmark “Carbon Majors” project shows the amount of carbon dioxide created by each of the world’s biggest coal, oil, gas and cement companies since the industrial revolution. The Philippines inquiry focuses on the publicly owned companies identified in this work, many of which operate in or have links to the country.

The commission was also shown expert evidence linking climate change with extreme weather events and information on the impact of fossil fuel industry lobbying and misinformation campaigns.

Myles Allen, co-author of the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C and head of the Climate Dynamics group at the University of Oxford’s department of atmospheric, oceanic and planetary physics, presented studies in London that showed human influence had increased the impact and intensity of Typhoon Haiyan.

He warned that even limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius would not be enough to completely avoid harm to people and property. Countries such as the Philippines are likely to suffer particularly badly.

Allen said fossil fuel companies had long been aware of the causes and impacts of climate change, but decided not to invest in mitigation technology decades ago. “In my view, there was an alternative course of action available to the industry,” he said.

The failure of fossil fuel companies to act has resulted in several high-profile climate liability cases. Roda Verheyen, a lawyer who has represented such cases, explained how climate change litigation is growing around the world and courts are hearing cases involving human rights arguments. She talked in particular about two cases she is involved in. In one, a Peruvian farmer whose home is at risk from a melting glacier is suing German energy company RWE. The case was dismissed but is now under appeal. In another, called the “People’s Climate Case”, ten families from across the world are taking the EU to court for not having stronger targets to reduce carbon emissions.

“I represent real clients with real problems,” said Verheyen. “We’re not talking about future effects. We’re talking about historic emissions. We’re talking about already occurring damage or risk due to climate change today.”

Despite the evidence that burning fossil fuels is driving climate change, ending their use quickly will be a challenge. Paul Ekins, co-director of the UK Energy Research Centre and professor of resources and environmental policy and director of the Institute for Sustainable Resources at University College London, said some investment in fossil fuels is necessary because the world is still dependent on them. But he was critical of investment in new exploration and discovery. “We know about plenty of reserves that we can’t afford to burn and discovering more of them will simply make those decisions more difficult.”

Any responsible business that is aware of its commitments to human rights and social welfare should be planning to exit from fossil fuels, added Ekins. “And we know from the recent 1.5C report it should be planning that pretty fast.”

Linking climate change and human rights

At an evening talk on human rights and climate change, held during the same week in London, Greenpeace lawyer Kristin Casper described the Philippines inquiry as a “microcosm of the global wave of action that is happening right now”.

Annalisa Savaresi, law lecturer at the University of Stirling, said the commission has set an important precedent in investigating the global issue of climate change as a national human rights organisation.

She said there were several key challenges to doing this: showing that corporations have human rights obligations in general, that a specific corporation has contributed to climate change in a way that amounts to a human rights breach and allocating responsibility for such breaches.

Savaresi concluded that the Philippines commission had heard evidence that these could be demonstrated. “If the commission is to find that indeed corporate responsibility for human rights violations can be attributed to carbon majors that could be a primer, and who knows where we go from there.”

The commission’s final hearing will be held in Manila in December. It is expected to formally report on its findings by next summer.

Cabe, who is now a community anti-coal activist, remains hopeful that it will have a positive influence. “I have seen how poor communities have become ever more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,” she said. “I believe that through this commission our stories and our voices can be heard. Governments and corporations can choose people over profit.”