Philippines inquiry finds carbon majors responsible for human rights breaches

Corporate actions to obfuscate climate science are ‘at the very least immoral’ and may be the basis for legal liability in other countries, finds major inquiry
<p>Rescuing people from the Filipino city of Cagayan de Oro after Typhoon Rai in December 2021. The inquiry by the Philippines Commission on Human Rights was driven by local NGOs and citizens, many of whom were typhoon survivors. (Image: Alamy)</p>

Rescuing people from the Filipino city of Cagayan de Oro after Typhoon Rai in December 2021. The inquiry by the Philippines Commission on Human Rights was driven by local NGOs and citizens, many of whom were typhoon survivors. (Image: Alamy)

The world’s most polluting companies have an obligation to address the harms of climate change because of their role in spreading misinformation, according to a major inquiry initiated by typhoon survivors from the Philippines.

A powerful report, published on 6 May after a long delay, concludes that 47 of the world’s biggest coal, oil, mining and cement firms engaged in “wilful obfuscation” of climate science and blocked a global transition to clean energy. It concluded these efforts were driven “not by ignorance, but by greed”.

The inquiry by the Philippines Commission on Human Rights began seven years ago following a petition by citizens and local NGOs, including Greenpeace Philippines.

Our experiences have been recognised and validated, even if we are not climate science experts
Veronica ‘Derek’ Cabe

During hearings in Manila, London and New York, the commission heard moving testimony from survivors of weather disasters who appealed directly to the companies to respect their human rights and act on climate change.

Veronica ‘Derek’ Cabe, whose emotional testimony in London had described how her home was devastated in 2009 by Typhoon Ketsana, told China Dialogue she felt relieved the report was finally out.

“Our experiences have been recognised and validated, even if we are not climate science experts, but as frontline community members who have been negatively impacted by climate change as a result of the continuing fossil fuel business.”

Despite being responsible for just 0.3% of global emissions, the Philippines is one of the countries most vulnerable to rising global temperatures. It is at risk of more frequent and powerful tropical storms, as well as fast-rising sea levels, while its marine life is being affected by increasing ocean temperatures and acidification.

Holding oil majors to account

The commission found evidence that climate change affects almost every aspect of citizens’ lives, including their rights to life, health, food security, water and sanitation, livelihood, adequate housing, preservation, self-determination and development, equality and non-discrimination – as well as the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Its inquiry also drew on scientific, legal and personal evidence from around the world to examine the role played in the climate crisis by the companies with the biggest historical greenhouse gas footprints, including BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Glencore, Shell, TotalEnergies and RWE.

The final report concludes that corporate actions to obfuscate climate science and delay, derail or obstruct the transition to clean energy are “at the very least immoral”, arguably breach existing law in the Philippines and may be the basis for legal liability in other countries.

It even extends this accountability beyond the carbon majors themselves to the business enterprises that form their value chain, including the financial sector. It says financial institutions and investors should refrain from financing fossil-fuel-related projects.

The commission also outlines the responsibilities of governments in holding companies to account, saying they should keep new coal, oil and gas in the ground and work towards a legally binding instrument to strengthen the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

States should also ensure businesses are subject to strong corporate responsibility laws, it says, adding that polluting companies must undertake human rights due diligence checks and provide remediation where necessary.

The report says these companies may even be held to account by their shareholders for continuing to invest in oil exploration for “largely speculative purposes”.

Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the US-based Center for International Environmental Law, described the inquiry as “systematic, careful and comprehensive” and said its final report is “very, very powerful”.

“The conclusions it reaches with respect to the profound and pervasive human rights impacts of climate change are compelling, carefully documented, and too often tragic.”

Publication of the report was repeatedly delayed, frustrating the petitioners, many of whom were also affected by Typhoon Rai last December. While no one is entirely sure what caused the delay, they mentioned to China Dialogue a combination of political instability, the Covid-19 pandemic, the death of the commission’s chair and wrangling over the final wording.

Industry refusal to engage

The final report also hints at major efforts to engage the fossil fuel industry.

In a foreword, chair Roberto Eugenio Cadiz said the commission provided “every opportunity” to allow the companies under investigation to participate in the inquiry, even travelling to countries where many of the firms are headquartered.

None of the companies provided formal evidence or testimony, although several challenged the commission’s jurisdiction over them in writing.

The commission’s report rejects these arguments, saying it has not only a mandate but “a duty to investigate and inquire into allegations of human rights violations suffered by our people”.

“The fossil fuel industry may seek to dismiss the commission’s inquiry and downplay the report by arguing that this was a fact-finding procedure, not an adjudicative one, undertaken by a human rights institution in a vulnerable country rather than a court in a wealthy one,” says Muffett.

“This would be a serious error. The commission’s analysis and the evidence it marshalled to inform and support that analysis has immediate relevance, value and persuasive weight not only for courts currently confronting climate litigation but for the growing universe of courts worldwide that will be addressing similar questions in the years to come.”

The threat of climate litigation

While the commission does not have the power to hold the companies legally responsible or to fine them, experts say the report could add fuel to the growing climate litigation movement. Lawsuits are increasingly targeting the private sector, with some challenging companies on the basis that their green claims are misleading. Meanwhile, the US government has been holding a lengthy inquiry into the oil and gas industry’s role in spreading disinformation about the role fossil fuels play in causing global warming.

Yeb Saño, executive director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said the report sets a solid legal basis for asserting that climate-destructive business activities by fossil fuel and cement companies contribute to human rights harms.

He described it as a “vindication for the millions of people whose fundamental rights are being impacted by the corporations behind the climate crisis” and called on the incoming Philippine government and world leaders to adopt the commission’s findings and “hold big polluters responsible for the climate-damaging impacts of their business activities”.

This report is not the end of this process. In fundamental ways it is the beginning for litigation in the Philippines and beyond
Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law

The Philippines inquiry is still the only case that has been lodged with a national human rights institution questioning the responsibility of carbon majors in relation to human rights, although the European Court of Human Rights is due to hear several climate-related challenges over the next few years.

As a result, Muffett said the international human rights community has been watching the process with great interest. “The commission’s investigation is persuasive legal reasoning and compelling legal analysis coupled with a comprehensive review of the same science and evidence that countries around the world are also holding in their hands.”

“This report is not the end of this process. This is a document that human rights bodies and courts around the world are going to be looking to and drawing from for a long time to come. In fundamental ways it is the beginning for litigation in the Philippines and beyond.”