In a landmark case, the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHR) announced Friday it will launch the first-ever investigation into dozens of fossil fuel companies for alleged human rights violations over the industry's role in worsening climate change.
The inquiry will commence on December 10, International Human Rights Day, and target stakeholders from 50 Big Oil corporations, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, Beyond Petroleum (BP), and ConocoPhillips—along with another 40 "legal entities that are responsible for the majority of global CO2 and methane emissions in the earth's atmosphere," said Greenpeace International, one of the organizations that filed the petition (pdf) in September calling for the CHR to assemble a task force on climate change and human rights.
"Climate change interferes with the enjoyment of our fundamental rights as human beings," the petition states. "Hence, we demand accountability of those contributing to climate change."
"It's time we held to account those who are most responsible for the devastating effects of climate change."
—Zelda Soriano, Greenpeace
The Philippines, a cluster of low-lying islands in the South Pacific, are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of rising sea levels and extreme weather events fueled by skyrocketing greenhouse gas emissions.
The commission's move marks the first time a call for climate justice will force the fossil fuel industry to answer for its environmental devastation.
"For the longest time since they started their business, these carbon polluters have been invincible. Nobody has challenged their social license and their role in climate change," Anna Abad, a climate justice campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, told Reuters on Friday. "This is one step in a whole legal strategy of making sure those complicit in climate change are held accountable."
The CHR's response "signals a turning point in the struggle to avoid catastrophic climate change," said Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo. "It opens a critical new avenue of struggle against the fossil fuel companies driving destructive climate change."
The petitioners also include survivors of the tropical cyclones such as the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan, which killed at least 6,300 people in the Philippines alone.
"In the era of climate change, we feel that the real value of the statistics and reports of disaster-related casualties has not been given adequate expression," they wrote. "The real life pain and agony of losing loved ones, homes, farms—almost everything—during strong typhoons, droughts, and other weather extremes, as well as the everyday struggle to live, to be safe, and to be able to cope with the adverse, slow onset impacts of climate change, are beyond numbers and words."
One petitioner, Veronica "Derek" Cabe, described huddling in her attic in wet clothes alongside family members, including a two-year-old, as floodwaters rolled through Manila for 12 hours during Typhoon Ketsana in 2009.
"We saw floating people, floating animals, floating coffins. We could not do anything, we could not help them. It was like watching a horror movie and the cruel part is we could not turn it off," Cabe said.
Also joining in the complaint are humanitarian and green groups like Amnesty International, the Center for International Environmental Law, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, among others. The investigation will solicit the cooperation of United Nations (UN) human rights experts and scientists.
"This is yet another indication that we are seeing the end of the fossil fuel era."
—Kumai Nadoo, Greenpeace
Whether the plaintiffs win their case or receive compensation for climate damages, any legal action launched against corporate polluters helps strengthen the growing opposition to the fossil fuel industry—and that might be enough to bring lasting change, legal experts say.
"Companies fear nothing more than a lawsuit," Gregory Regaignon, an attorney with the UK-based Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, told Reuters.
Simply putting some high-profile pressure on energy corporations could be enough to drive away investors and hit those polluters "where their assets are," Regaignon said. "That's what they care about most, and how we're going to reach remedies."
Greenpeace attorney Zelda Soriano added, "This investigation is not just about how fossil fuel companies do business, but that they do business at all in the future. It's time we held to account those who are most responsible for the devastating effects of climate change."
While the CHR moves ahead with its investigation, more petitions are coming down the pipeline, Greenpeace said.
"This should hopefully inspire other human rights commissions around the world to take similar action," Naidoo said. "If I were a CEO of a fossil fuel company, I would be running scared. This is yet another indication that we are seeing the end of the fossil fuel era."