The world's 47 largest producers of greenhouse gases must respond within 45 days to an unprecedented legal complaint filed Wednesday by the Philippines, which alleges the fossil fuel behemoths have deprived millions of residents of the island nation of their human rights through catastrophic global warming.
"We just want to live a decent and peaceful life, without fear and being at the mercy of big corporations that only care for their profits."
—Veronica "Derek" Cabe, PetitionerThe Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHR), a governmental body, sent the multinational "carbon majors" a 60-page letter (pdf) accusing them of "breaching people"s fundamental rights to 'life, food, water, sanitation, adequate housing, and to self determination,'" the Guardian reports.
"The commission's actions are unprecedented. For the first time, a national human rights body is officially taking steps to address the impacts of climate change on human rights and the responsibility of private actors," Zelda Soriano, legal and political adviser for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, one of the groups that brought the complaint to the CHR, told the newspaper.
"This is an important building block in establishing the moral and legal 'precedent' that big polluters can be held responsible for current and threatened human rights infringements resulting from fossil fuel products," Soriano added.
The Philippines has been one of the countries hardest hit by the effects of climate change.
The Guardian reports:
Four of its most devastating super-cyclones have occurred in the last decade, and the country has recorded increasingly severe floods and heatwaves that have been linked to man-made global warming.
Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda, was one of the most powerful storms ever recorded, killing more than 6,000 people and displacing 650,000 others in 2013.
The legal complaint has been brought by typhoon survivors and non-governmental organisations and is supported by more than 31,000 Filipinos.
"We've been affected for so long by storms, droughts…by extreme weather, now made worse by climate change. We just want to live a decent and peaceful life, without fear and being at the mercy of big corporations that only care for their profits," said Veronica "Derek" Cabe, who joined the complaint from Bataan, a province where "communities are fighting against coal storage facilities and proposals for a new coal-fired power plant and where one of the community leaders advocating against coal was shot dead on 1 July 2016," as Greenpeace International writes.
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"Our only choice is to defend our rights," Cabe continued. "We want those most responsible to be held accountable. We want justice and to regain the ability to protect the little that we have left for our children."
"Ultimately, those who have profited most from pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere must bear the burden of preventing the havoc already being wreaked by climate change."
—Jennifer Morgan, Greenpeace International
The letter was addressed to corporations "responsible for the majority of fossil fuel products that have been manufactured, marketed, and sold since the industrial revolution and have contributed the lion's share of cumulative global emissions of industrial CO2 and methane," Greenpeace International notes.
Those included Shell, BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and many other oil, gas, concrete manufacturing, and mining behemoths.
The companies were chosen based on research (pdf) by Richard Heede, director of the U.S.-based Climate Accountability Institute. In 2013, Heede calculated that "a mere 90 companies, some private and some state-owned, account for a full two-thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions that are now driving perilous rates of global warming," as Common Dreams reported.
"Ultimately, those who have profited most from pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere must bear the burden of preventing the havoc already being wreaked by climate change. This is the first step in that process," said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, in a press statement.
"The courageous Filipino people are the first to put the world's largest carbon producers on notice that they must account for their emissions," Morgan said.
The Guardian observes that the CHR "is not a court and would have no power to force companies to reduce emissions or fine them. However, it can make recommendations to government and would add to the worldwide pressure to persuade shareholders to divest from heavy carbon emitters."
Once the companies' responses are received, Greenpeace says, hearings will begin in the Philippines in October 2016.