Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines, one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change.In the Philippines, devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, the human rights commission is investigating fossil fuel companies' liability in climate-related damages. Photo credit: Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images

By Ucilia Wang

The Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines is holding the first public hearing of its investigation into whether fossil fuel companies have violated the human rights of its citizens, who have endured devastating climate-related disasters in recent years.

The five-person commission heard emotional testimony on Tuesday about the impact of severe drought and extreme storms on farmers, fishermen and their families. They also listened to scientists who laid out global and Philippines-specific data on climate change and presented research that attributed two-thirds of the man-made emissions since the start of the industrial age to 90 oil, gas, coal and cement companies. The two-day hearing continued on Wednesday.

Zelda Soriano of Greenpeace Southeast Asia delivered the opening statement, which compared the health and environmental impact of climate change—and the companies involved—to smoking and its health effects.

“Today, there’s that little government warning on every cigarette pack because once upon a time, some people sued the giant cigarette companies, and the courts listened to them and rejected the excuses that the impacts of smoking cannot be quantified,” Soriano told the commissioners.

The commission launched the investigation in 2015 after receiving a petition from a group that included Greenpeace, community groups and 18 individuals. The case targets 47 so-called Carbon Majors, which includes the world’s largest oil, gas, coal and cement companies, even those that don’t operate in the Philippines.

None of these companies, which include ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Anglo American and Total, spoke in front of the commission during the first day of the hearing. More than a dozen of them have challenged the commission’s authority to investigate them and have not cooperated in its proceedings. The cement firm, CEMEX, has since dropped its jurisdictional challenge, the commission announced during the hearing.

An island nation, the Philippines among the countries most at risk from climate change. The country has absorbed an increasing number of destructive natural disasters, including Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 6,300 people in 2013, the petitioners said.  

The case is unusual for seeking accountability through the human rights lens: determining whether these companies are largely responsible for climate impacts and are therefore violating Filipinos’ basic rights to life, water, food, sanitation, adequate housing and self-determination.  

The case is also novel for its venue: the commission can’t impose financial penalties or send people to jail. But its findings and potential recommendations could lead to tougher regulations or could exert public pressure on the companies to cut their emissions and move away from extracting, selling and using fossil fuels.

Any findings of human rights abuse could also become a foundation for lawsuits around the world since the Carbon Majors do business in many countries.  

“This hearing is just the start, and there will be more opportunities for communities and experts to testify, and for companies to get involved,” said Kristin Casper, litigation counsel of Greenpeace’s climate justice and liability project.

Human rights claims aren’t common in climate cases worldwide, but they are emerging. They tend to seek stronger climate action plans from governments, instead of seeking accountability from fossil fuel companies. Courts in a handful of countries, such as Ireland,  the Netherlands and Pakistan, have acknowledged the connection between human rights and a government’s responsibility to protect the environment.

In Colombia, an appellate court is considering a case from 25 youths who contend that the government violated their constitutional rights to life and a healthy environment by failing to honor its commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement to stop deforestation in the Amazon.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights recently issued a landmark opinion that says people have the right to live in a healthy environment. The opinion could force Latin American countries to take more aggressive actions to limit emissions.

In the United States, the case brought by 21 young people in Oregon, Juliana v. United States, argues that the federal government violated the youths’ constitutional rights to life, liberty and property by enacting policies that support fossil fuel development.  

The legal group representing the plaintiffs in Juliana, Our Children’s Trust, is one of at least 10 organizations that have submitted amicus briefs in support of the petitioners in the Philippines.

“The case brings truth out and helps to give people who may otherwise not have a voice to tell their stories and access to justice,” said Erika Lennon, senior attorney in the climate & energy program at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), which also filed an amicus brief.

In addition to testimony from local residents and Filipino scientists, the commission also heard a presentation by Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, via Skype from New York City. He discussed the science behind tying specific amounts of emissions and global warming to particular companies, which is the basis for being able to hold them accountable.

The commission is scheduled to hear from six more witnesses before wrapping up the two-day hearing. One of them, Lisa Hamilton from the Center for International Environmental Law, is expected to discuss evidence of how fossil fuel companies have misled the public about climate risks.

The hearing phase is expected to last a year, after which the commission will issue a report. The next hearing is scheduled for May, and subsequent hearings will be held in other countries in an attempt to  nudge the Carbon Majors to participate. One is planned for New York City in September.