Can Philippine storm survivors hold major companies responsible for contributing to climate change?
An independent body set up 2015 to conduct an inquiry will hold its first public hearings next week in Manila, followed by additional hearings in London and New York
Veronica Cabe still remembers every minute of the more than 12 hours she and her family spent huddled on the roof of their two-storey home in Manila in 2009, as floodwaters swept past, carrying dead bodies, animal carcasses and coffins.
Typhoon Ketsana, which killed about 500 people, was the most devastating typhoon to hit the Philippine capital in decades.
As the frequency and intensity of storms increased, Cabe began to speak up about holding someone responsible.
In 2015, she became a petitioner in a landmark complaint – soon to be examined by a national inquiry – which accuses global oil, mining and cement companies of human rights violations by playing a role in driving climate change.
Next week, Cabe will be among more than a dozen experts and citizens to testify that the greenhouse gas emissions of some 50 firms infringe on Filipinos’ rights to life, food, water, sanitation and adequate housing, through the growing impacts of global warming.
“We thought we would die on that roof – it was so scary, so traumatic,” said Cabe, a 45-year-old community organiser.
“But it also made me really angry – can we only pray? Should we just accept our fate whenever disaster strikes, or can we hold someone accountable? If the carbon majors are causing damage, then they cannot just carry on,” she said.
The Philippines is ranked as one of the countries most severely hit by wild weather super-charged by climate change.
Now, disaster survivors and about a dozen rights groups led by Greenpeace Southeast Asia are aiming to force companies to declare their plans to prevent and mitigate the impact of emissions from extracting, burning and selling fossil fuels, which scientists say are warming the planet.
The Philippine Commission on Human Rights (CHR), an independent body set up by the government, agreed in 2015 to conduct an inquiry, and will hold its first public hearings next week in Manila, followed by additional hearings in London and New York.
Oil giants Chevron and BP, and miner Rio Tinto are among the so-called “carbon majors” cited in the petition. The three companies did not respond to emails seeking comment.
But at least half a dozen companies submitted responses in 2016 to the commission and organisations backing the complaint, outlining the steps they are taking to curb corporate emissions.
Some firms also argued they were not subject to the commission’s jurisdiction, nor required to submit to its proceedings.
The inquiry is the first time a government agency has accepted, and acted on, a request for investigation of the environmental responsibility of companies that sell or are heavy users of fossil fuels, according to Zelda Soriano, an lawyer with Greenpeace Southeast Asia.
“It’s the first case to use the human-rights framework to take on carbon majors causing climate change. It is a big deal for a small human rights body in a small country,” she said.
The commission can only make recommendations to Philippine legislators and the business world, and has no enforcement powers.
But Soriano said the inquiry would set “a precedent”, and the commission’s resolution and proposed measures would add weight “to every existing and future climate-change litigation case in any part of the world, no matter the outcome”.
The Philippines complaint complements a global upsurge in legal challenges seeking redress for climate-change impacts.
Legal filings in countries from Germany to Pakistan and the Netherlands aim to force faster action to tackle climate change and its impacts, or claim damages from energy firms.
Earlier this month, a federal appeal court rejected the US government’s bid to halt a lawsuit by young people claiming that the administration is violating their constitutional rights by ignoring the harms caused by climate change.
In Norway, activists have said the country’s plans for Arctic oil exploration are unconstitutional, in an emerging branch of law where plaintiffs are trying to enlist a nation’s founding principles to limit warming.
According to a 2014 study commissioned by the Climate Justice Programme and Greenpeace International, companies including Chevron, ExxonMobil and BP have contributed a large share of the carbon dioxide and methane emissions causing climate change.
The Philippine human rights commission will allow companies named in the complaint to present their arguments, and aims to conclude its inquiry this year, Soriano said. It plans to pass a resolution next year.
The commission, in a 2016 statement, said the case was “novel in its attempt to haul the ‘carbon majors’ in a petition involving human rights [and] promote the notion that businesses have an obligation to respect human rights”.
“The inquiry, it is hoped, would result in the improvement and/or development of measures to further protect and promote human rights in this era of climate change,” it added.
This, and other climate-change cases, attest that governments are not moving “fast enough or ambitiously enough on climate”, said Sarah Labowitz, co-founder of the New York University Stern Centre for Business and Human Rights.
Even if the Philippines petition “isn’t successful on the merits, we can look at it as a demand made by people without a lot of power, for action by the biggest and most powerful actors”, she said.
The climate-change hearings in the Philippines come amid rising instances of violence against activists trying to protect the country’s environment. The Philippines recorded the highest number of such attacks in Asia last year.
Cabe’s former colleague, Gloria Capitan, was shot dead in 2016 for opposing a coal-mining project in Bataan province. But Cabe said the fight must go on, urging companies to do business in a way that does not harm communities or nature.
“We need electricity, but not at the cost of our lives and at the cost of the environment,” she said.