Philippines National Inquiry on Climate Change
In 2022, the Philippines Human Rights Commission (hereinafter “the Commission”) released the results of a seven-year investigation into the impacts of climate change on the Philippines and the duty on states and private actors to address “the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters.” The investigation was prompted after Greenpeace Southeast Asia and others submitted a petition to the Commission, asking it to examine the impacts of climate change through the lens of human rights violations, the role of major fossil fuel companies, and the role of states in aiding those “carbon majors.”
The Commission employed a multi-faceted strategy throughout the seven years of its investigation. It conducted interviews, roundtable discussions, expert consultations, community dialogues, and public hearings.
The final report is divided into four main sections: (a) findings; (b) states’ duty to protect human rights; (c) responsibility of business enterprises to respect human rights; and (d) carbon majors in the context of climate change.
In the findings section, the report first acknowledges that climate change is real and caused by human activity, and that it poses a great threat to human rights. Relying on reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Commission points to atmospheric warming, ocean warming, ocean acidification, cryosphere loss, sea level rise, and the increase of extreme weather events as direct results of the “influence of human activities on the climate.”
The Commission then notes that all of these phenomena affect human rights and delves into an analysis of how each right is affected by climate change. Specifically, the Commission addresses the right to life, right to health, right to food security, right to water and sanitation, right to livelihood, right to adequate housing, right to preservation of culture, right to self-determination and development, right to equality and non-discrimination, right to a healthy environment, and the right of intergenerational equity. Below we delve into an analysis of some, but not all, of these rights, recognizing, as the Commission did, their interdependence.
The right to life is affected because climate change poses a direct threat to the right to exist. This is not only due to physical safety during extreme weather events, but also due to the undermining of “critical resources that support human life.” Generally speaking, the Commission notes an estimated 400,000 deaths per year due to “extreme weather events, heat waves, diseases, and water and food insecurity.” This figure is expected to rise, with an estimated 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030–2050. In the Philippines, the right to life is mostly affected by extreme weather events. Indeed, in the Report’s preface, the COmmission notes the legacy of Super Typhoon Haiyan as a backdrop for the inquiry. This right also implicated the right to livelihood and to adequate housing.
The right to health is a fundamental human right also enshrined within the Philippines Constitution. Climate change affects the right to health because of physical and mental health deterioration and because the conditions that climate change induces are dangerous for the human body, such as contaminated water and poor air quality. For instance, in 2019, Philippines declared a “national dengue epidemic owing to the 98 percent increase in cases from January to July 2019.” Additionally, Filippinos face collective psychological trauma from Super Typhoon Haiyan.
As briefly mentioned, the right to food security is also implicated by climate change, because of the unpredictability of food availability, adequacy and sustainability. In the Philippines, farmers can point to a direct correlation between global warming and food insecurity: “production of rice…is reduced by ten percent (10%) for every one degree centigrade increase in night temperatures.” This is especially dire considering rice is the staple food in the Philippines. Similarly, the right to food is interconnected with mental health concerns. One testimonial from the public hearings shared that “we couldn’t bear the thought of eating fish that may have fed on the dead bodies of our dead neighbors” following Super Typhoon Haiyan.
The Commission also recognized that the right to preservation of culture, enshrined as a fundamental human right and within the Philippines Constitution, is threatened by climate change. This is due to internal displacement caused by climate change, the loss of ancestral lands, and the loss of natural resources which provide food and medicine that Indigenous Peopleshave relied on for their entire existence.
In a similar vein, the Commission recognized that “climate change prevents the realization of the right to self-determination and development when victims thereof are trapped in an endless cycle of dealing with its adverse impacts.”
The Commission also spent time outlining how various communities experience exacerbated harm due to climate change, including women, children, indigenous people, older adults, people living in poverty, and members of the LGBQIA+ community. For instance, for women and the LGBQIA+ community, much of the harm presents itself as discrimination and violence: lack of opportunities to earn income, work that is not recognized as income, as well as multiple forms of physical and sexual violence.
The second report section outlines the various sources of authority underlying states’ duties to protect human rights, which the Commission finds to include protection from the impacts of climate change. Relying on principles of human rights and the environment, the Commission notes that states’ duties fall into three categories: procedural, substantive, and special obligations “towards those in vulnerable situations.”
The Commission placed great emphasis on the States’ obligations to regulate non-state actors. For instance, it highlighted that States have a “procedural obligation, inter alia, to enable affordable and timely access to justice and effective remedies for all, to hold States and businesses accountable for fulfilling their climate change obligations.” States also have a substantive obligation to “abstain from all action that infringe on a person’s basic human rights as a result of their environmental consequences, and implement punitive laws against environmental harm to protect human rights from violation by third parties, particularly businesses.” Finally, the Commission found that States must “drastically reduce the carbon footprint not only of State activities, but also of non-State actors. This involves drastic reductions in the use of fossil fuels and the transition to renewable energy sources by 2030.”
The Commission also found that inaction vis-a-vis the climate may be considered a breach of the duty to protect human rights. Finally, the Commission debunks the oft-used argument by governments that they are not responsible for mitigating climate change as they did not cause climate change single-handedly, stating “human rights law requires each State to do more than merely refrain from interfering with human rights itself. It also requires each State to protect against harms that others may cause actively.”
Part Three of the report outlines the sources of authority for the responsibility of corporations, business enterprises, and financial institutions to respect human rights. The Commission centers the Universal Human Rights Declaration (UDHR) as the founding basis for all authorities on business and human rights. Then, the Commission incorporates the guidelines put forth by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP-BHR), the United Nations Global Compact, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Guidelines for Multinational Corporations.
In summary, these guidelines all require corporations to respect human rights by (a) avoiding contributing to adverse human rights impacts and address them when they occur; (b) seeking to prevent and mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services; (c) identifying and assessing the human rights impacts arising from their products and operations; mitigating the greenhouse gas emissions from their operations and products; and (d) carrying out human rights due diligence in accordance with the magnitude of their impact.
In Part Four, the Commission addresses the role of Carbon Majors in contributing to climate change, in myriad ways. First, the Commission attributes a large portion of climate change to the Carbon Majors, with more than 21% of all global emissions from fossil fuel and cement production attributable to the 47 respondent Carbon Major companies. Notably, the Commission invited all 47 defendants to engage in the investigation by sharing evidence and providing testimonials, yet all 47 of them refused these invitations.
Second, after evaluating copies of internal documents from the fossil fuel industry, peer-reviewed studies analyzing communications of one Carbon Major and early scientific reports on carbon dioxide emissions, the Commission concluded that the Carbon Majors “had early awareness, notice, or knowledge of their products’ adverse impacts on the environment and climate system.”
Third, the Commission found that the fossil fuel industry, and Carbon Majors, intentionally and systematically obfuscated climate science, and sought to misinform the public about how their activities were harming the environment. For example, the Commission reviewed American Petroleum Institute's internal memorandum of their outward-facing communications plan. This plan included as one of their goals to make “those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality.” The commission describes such tactics as “devious” and “chilling.”
Based on this evidence, the Commission found that “the strategies described in the communications action plan were actually deployed, politicians were funded, and front groups were created to oppose regulations under the guise of grassroots support.” The Commission also noted that such efforts continue to this day. As such, the Commission found liability under Philippine law.
The Commission recognized that this willful obfuscation “prejudiced the right of the public to make informed decisions about their products, concealing that their products posed significant harms to the environment and the climate system. All these have served to obfuscate scientific findings and delay meaningful environmental and climate action.”
Finally, the Commission found that carbon majors within the Philippine jurisdiction may be required to undertake human rights due diligence and provide remediation. This is partly because the UNGP-BHR may be “individually be considered under Philippine domestic law as constitutive of generally accepted principles of international law” (as was the UDHR was adopted by the Philippines under the Constitution’s incorporation clause).
The Commission extended this due diligence requirement not only to the carbon majors themselves, but also to the “business enterprises that cause, contribute or are linked to adverse climate-related human rights impacts.” In other words, to all entities within the carbon majors’ value chain.
Defendants refused to participate in the investigation, citing the following reasons: (1) due to territoriality, the Commission lacked authority or power to inquire into their activities; and (2) even if the Commission had jurisdiction to conduct such hearings, the subject matter of climate change was not within the realm of civil and political rights and that the Philippines Constitution only allowed the Commission to investigate cases involving civil and political rights. As mentioned above, the Commission invited the 47 carbon majors to participate in the multifaceted investigation, yet citing the reasons above, all 47 companies refused to do so.
Recognizing that the efforts to combat climate change inherently must be interconnected and collaborative, involving all sectors of society, the Commission divided its recommendations by sector, including states, corporations, NGOs, courts, among others.
The Commission also recognized some basic principles within the alleviation of climate change, including:
- “Countries that have reaped the benefits of high industrialization without regard for massive GHG emissions and their effects on the environment, bear a larger share in providing solutions to the problem they have created. That is climate justice.”
- “Sustainable adaptation and mitigation measures must be based on equity and justice and must consider specific inequalities which stem from gender, ethnicity, disability, age, location, and income.”
- “Climate neutrality cannot take place at the expense of people. Ensure work for people in an environmentally-sustainable economy that will guarantee decent work for all, social inclusion and the eradication of poverty. This is particularly true for oil-based economies and those with workforces relying on carbon-intensive industries and their supply chains.”
To States, the Commission recommended that they:
- Require businesses to communicate how they incorporate human rights into the equation of their business operations.
- Provide penalties for emissions, the income from which could be allocated to mitigation and adaptation activities.
- Support environmental defenders and climate activists by (a) expanding civil space that enables climate organizations to interchange ideas and build power; (b) remove administrative barriers to the formation of climate NGOs, (c) prohibit vilification and surveillance of climate activists and environmental groups.
- Promote climate change awareness and education, not only on a scientific level, but also on a sociological and political level by (a) integrating it into school curricula, (b) mass public education campaigns on climate change, (c) seek public participation from youth, women, civil society, in formulating and implementing efforts to address climate change.
- Include the military in carbon accounting. (For example, the U.S. military consumes more liquid fuels and emits more CO2 than most countries).
To the carbon majors, the Commission recommended that they:
- Disclose due diligence plans and how they will support the Paris Agreement requirements with specific plans and key performance indicators, available for review for a specific time period.
- Desist from undermining climate science through systemic public misinformation campaigns
- Cease exploration for new oil fields and invest corporate research and resources into the transition towards clean energy.
To financial institutions and investors, the Commission recommended that they:
- Divest from fossil fuels, generally, and also as a way to incentivize fossil fuel companies to invest in the transition towards clean energy.
To courts, the Commission recommended that they:
- Must interpret the law in conformity with international obligations and act as enforcement tools of States’ international obligations– including those relating to climate change.
To Philippines government specifically, the Commission recommended that it:
- Declare a climate emergency
- Strengthen its climate action plan
- Adopt measures to improve access to justice and to a remedy for those harmed by climate impacts
The investigatory nature of this report and its comprehensive breadth make it more of a fact-finding document than an adjudicative one. The report gathers and organizes essential information that creates a foundation for advocates in both legal spheres (litigation) and direct action circles (campaigns) to utilize in holding fossil fuel and Carbon Majors accountable.
One of the biggest achievements of the National Inquiry on Climate Change regards to its people-centered approach. Mirroring styles like truth commissions and peoples tribunals, the Commission successfully centered the experiences and voices of those who have been most impacted by climate change. As one of the witnesses at the Commission stated: “Our experiences have been recognized 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.”
Second, the final report serves as a key tool in resisting corporate capture of climate policy. The report exposed and neatly documented the insidious campaign by carbon majors and fossil fuel companies to deny the devastating impacts that their activities were having on the climate, and thus, on people. Having this consolidated and thorough account of how corporations have captured government spaces and other decision-making bodies, not to mention the public narrative around climate change, provides a solid foundation on which to rely on to resist further attempts by corporations to continue obfuscating their role in the climate crisis, for instance through the promotion of false solutions and greenwashing.
Third, the report provides a pathway for the Philippines, and all States, to strengthen its human rights obligations by regulating the activities of corporations within its borders but also extraterritorially. The transnational nature of the carbon majors, as presented in the Commission's report, highlights the need for states to “use their influence in international policy fora to create an enabling environment for the realization of human rights.” This includes the incorporation of international agreements and standards into domestic legal frameworks which prevents States from allowing or supporting environmentally-dangerous practices by corporations.
Since the Philippines is the fifth most climate change affected country according to the Global Climate Risk Index, the holding of this investigation and the framework that it created might propel other states who are similarly positioned to the Philippines to host their own investigations.