Filipino inquiry finds big polluters ‘morally and legally liable’ for climate damage

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The world’s most polluting companies have a moral and legal obligation to address the harms of climate change because of their role in spreading misinformation, according to an inquiry brought about by Filipino typhoon survivors.

Experts say the long-awaited report published on Friday, which concludes that coal, oil, mining and cement firms engaged in “wilful obfuscation” of climate science and obstructed efforts towards a global transition to clean energy, could add fuel to climate lawsuits around the world.

The inquiry by the Philippines Commission on Human Rights began seven years ago after a petition by survivors of Typhoon Haiyan and local NGOs.

As well as considering the human rights impacts of climate breakdown in the Philippines, it drew on scientific, legal and personal evidence from around the world to examine the role played by 47 of the world’s most polluting companies in the climate crisis.

During hearings in Manila, London and New York, the commission heard from survivors of extreme weather disasters who appealed directly to the companies to respect their human rights.

It concluded that the world’s most polluting companies are morally and legally liable for the impacts of the climate crisis because they have engaged in wilful obfuscation of climate science and obstructed efforts towards a global transition to clean energy.

It said they may also be held to account by their shareholders for continuing to invest in oil exploration for “largely speculative purposes”.

The commission called on governments to phase out fossil fuel projects and keep new coal, oil and gas in the ground, provide incentives for renewable energy, and ensure businesses are subject to strong corporate responsibility laws.

Yeb Saño, the executive director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, which helped bring the original petition, said the report was a “vindication” for the millions of people whose rights were being breached by the companies behind the climate crisis.

“This report is historic and sets a solid legal basis for asserting that climate-destructive business activities by fossil fuel and cement companies contribute to human rights harms. The message is clear: these corporate behemoths cannot continue to transgress human rights and put profit before people and planet.”

While the commission does not have the power to hold the companies legally responsible or to fine them, experts hope the report will inform the development of new laws and lawsuits in the Philippines, and the vast body of evidence it has collected will be used by policymakers, lawyers and climate campaigners around the world.

Carroll Muffett, the president and CEO of the US-based Center for International Environmental Law, described the result as a watershed moment in climate accountability that built on other recent court lawsuits, such as last year’s ruling by a Dutch court that Shell had to cut its emissions by 45% by 2030.

He said the commission’s conclusion that states are responsible for protecting their citizens from climate-related human rights abuses by businesses “should send shock waves through the oil industry”.

The commission’s chair, Roberto Eugenio Cadiz, said it had provided “every opportunity” to companies under investigation to participate in the inquiry, even travelling to countries where many of the firms had their headquarters, but none took up the offer. Several challenged the commission’s jurisdiction over them in writing and argued that climate change was not a violation of human rights.

Publication of the report was repeatedly delayed, to the growing frustration of the petitioners, many of whom were also affected by the more recent Typhoon Rai, but they are glad it has finally come out. Saño said the commission set a “courageous example” for other human rights institutions and governments around the world and called on the incoming Philippine government to adopt its findings.