IMPACT

It May Have Just Gotten A Lot Easier To Sue Exxon And Shell For Climate Change Devastation

A new investigation provides the most “robust” evidence yet connecting fossil fuel companies to climate-related human rights violations, legal experts say.

A major three-year human rights investigation into 47 of the biggest fossil fuel companies and their role in driving climate change has released its conclusions and legal experts are calling it a “watershed moment.”

Over the last three years, the Philippines Commission on Human Rights (CHR) has been gathering evidence on whether huge oil, coal, gas and mining companies — such as Shell, Chevron and Exxon — can be held liable for the human suffering caused by climate change.

The investigation kicked off in 2016, prompted by a petition filed by Greenpeace and the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement on behalf of Filipino typhoon survivors. It called for the devastation wrought by extreme weather exacerbated by climate change to be properly recognized by the legal community and governments, and for fossil fuel companies to be held accountable for their role.

The Philippines is among the nations most vulnerable to climate change. Located in one of the most cyclone-prone regions, the country is at risk of sea level rise, extreme weather and dangerously hot temperatures. In 2013, more than 6,300 people died after Typhoon Haiyan hit. Just this month, 17 people died after Typhoon Kammuri struck.

Speaking at the international climate conference in Madrid on Monday, CHR commissioner Roberto Cadiz revealed the investigation’s findings: These “carbon majors” have played a significant role in creating the climate crisis and they have a clear legal responsibility for their conduct.

The findings confirm that “people harmed by the climate crisis should have access to justice in domestic and international courts,” according to Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law. This “watershed moment,” as Muffett called the investigation, could have repercussions all over the world. The research compiled in the commission’s report includes vital information needed by individuals or communities who wish to seek compensation for suffering experienced as a result of the effects of climate change. 

The commission’s findings are a “beacon of hope for the victims of the climate crisis,” said Ashfaq Khalfan, director of law and policy at Amnesty International, noting it’s the first time ever that a human rights body has said that fossil fuel corporations can be found legally responsible for harm linked to climate change. 

Children use a tire to cross a flooded street in the aftermath of Typhoon Mangkhut in September 2018.
Children use a tire to cross a flooded street in the aftermath of Typhoon Mangkhut in September 2018.

These findings come as multiple lawsuits against fossil fuel companies continue to make their way through courts around the world and as awareness of the connection between climate change and human rights is on the rise. 

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet recently described the climate crisis as a “rapidly growing and global threat to human rights.” In letters sent this week to the prime ministers of Norway and Canada, Greta Thunberg and 15 other youth climate activists urged the two countries to phase out fossil fuels, saying their oil and gas production violates children’s rights around the world. And at the annual meeting of the International Criminal Court in December, the South Pacific island of Vanuatu called on the court to formalize the crime of “ecocide” as a “crime against peace.” This could see fossil fuel company CEOs, among others, on trial at The Hague for environmental destruction. 

Researchers have already shown that just a handful of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies are responsible for the bulk of emissions. According to a 2017 Carbon Majors report, published by the environmental non-profit CDP, just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. And new analysis released on Wednesday found that 88 of the largest coal, oil and gas producers and cement manufacturers are responsible for over half of the ocean’s climate change-driven acidification, which harms plankton and causes coral to die off. 

But the conclusions of the CHR’s investigation — the first case of its kind to be launched by a government body — mark a very important step, say experts, in a long battle to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate change impacts.

“This is a really significant development,” Muffett told HuffPost, not only because it confirms that “it is appropriate to hold private actors accountable for their contribution to the climate crisis,” but because the report “is a tremendous body of evidence, testimony and legal analysis.”

At present, Muffett said, this report ― which has yet to be released publicly ― is “the largest body of evidence … regarding human impacts and the role of carbon majors that we have anywhere.”

And while the commission’s report does not call for any penalties towards the companies investigated ― this was never its objective ― its findings create an important precedent and foundation from which others can pursue these penalties.

“It opens the door for further litigation, and even criminal investigations, that could see fossil fuel companies and other major polluters either forced to pay damages, or their officials sent to jail for harms linked to climate change,” said Khalfan. “The decision also affirms that fossil fuel companies have to respect human rights and invest in clean energy.”

Muffett expects that this report will help usher in a wave of fresh climate lawsuits not just in the Philippines but in communities around the world. Additionally, the findings bolster the argument that such cases could be heard in criminal courts, rather than confined to civil legal proceedings. These potential plaintiffs won’t need to go through the steep learning curve the CHR did when it first began its investigation, he said, but can instead use the report’s findings as a launch pad to make their own cases.

Reacting to the investigation’s findings, Greenpeace Southeast Asia Executive Director Yeb Saño said it was a “vindication” for frontline communities who are being hit first and hardest by climate change. “While the poorest and most vulnerable communities reel from super typhoons and droughts made worse by climate change,” Saño said in a statement, the fossil fuel industry continues to “rake in profits.” 

This report, Saño said, signals that the world is continuing to “wak[e] up to the fact that fossil fuel industry knowingly imperiled the safety and security of millions of people around the world for their own short term interests.” 

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