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Leon Kaye headshot

Philippines Investigates Carbon Majors’ Role in Climate Change

By Leon Kaye

In a move the governments of other developing countries will watch closely, the Philippines issued a complaint directed at 47 of the world’s largest companies last week.

The country’s Commission on Human Rights (CHR) accuses these companies of emitting greenhouse gases to the extent that they have violated the human rights of millions of people living in this archipelago.

To that end, the CHR gave these “carbon majors,” which include oil, cement and mining companies, until mid-September to answer questions related to their role in contributing to the natural disasters that the Philippines insist resulted from climate change.

Co-signing the CHR’s petition were over a dozen NGOs based in the Philippines, including Dakila, a social activist organization; Mother Earth Foundation, an environmental justice group; and a coalition of nonprofits called the Asian People’s Movement on Debt and Development. Leading the charge is Greenpeace’s Philippines chapter.

The CHR’s 60-page document demands accountability and answers from some of the world’s oldest and largest multinationals, as well as state-owned firms. And it's backed up by copious media reports and studies by international organizations and NGOs. Time magazine, for example, described this country of 98.4 million as “ground zero for climate disaster.” The World Bank designated the Southeast Asian expanse of 7,100 islands as one of the world’s most “vulnerable” countries in terms of susceptibility to natural disasters attributed to climate change.

Companies named in CHR’s complaint could be best described as a “who’s who” of carbon emitters. CHR culled data estimating the companies that have released the most of greenhouse gases into the earth’s atmosphere since 1751. Based on what it says are the world’s largest contributors to climate change, the agency demands that these companies be held accountable for violations, and “threats of violations,” on several fronts. The impacts on society, the complaint’s authors say, include Filipinos’ rights to life, health, food, water, sanitation, housing and self-determination.

Chevron and ExxonMobil are deemed to be the largest violators, but the list spans companies across the globe. Shell, Total, Rio Tinto, Respol, EnCana, Yukos, Cemex and the coal producer Massey Energy (which was acquired by Alpha Natural Resources) are among the firms from which CHR and its partner organizations are demanding answers.

This document certainly makes for superb political theater. Reading like a manifesto that blames large companies for the Philippines' -- and the planet’s -- ills, it will arouse sympathies from citizens who see the world’s largest polluters as Goliath in contrast to to the developing countries’ role as David in discussions over climate change and sustainable development.

Perusing through the complaint certainly brings up images of Typhoon Yolanda, one of the worst tropical storms ever recorded in human history. The November 2013 disaster killed at least 6,300 people in the Philippines, severely affected almost 1.5 million families. And it left behind an estimated $3 billion in damage.

At issue, however, is how far this complaint can go. As the Guardian reported, only 10 of the 47 companies mentioned in the complaint have offices within the Philippines. The odds that any company based abroad would participate in such a sideshow are almost nil. And the possibility is even slimmer that any foreign government would cooperate if the Philippines’ government went as far as starting extradition proceedings.

This announcement, however, could help maintain Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s popularity, buoyed in part by an international tribunal’s decision on his nation’s claims to the South China Sea. The Philippines’ new leader, who took office just over a month ago, has long kept citizens -- and international observers -- on their toes with his well-documented series of controversial statements.

Duterte’s pattern of head-scratching comments extends to climate change. Days after declaring that the Philippines would not honor commitments to the Paris Agreement and other international climate change accords, he insisted last week that climate change would be a “top priority” for his administration.

How far the Philippines can take take this complaint also rests on the reputation of its own government. Long notorious for systemic corruption, Transparency International ranked the Philippines with a low score on its annual index. The country shares its place on the most recent list with countries such as Armenia, Mali and Mexico. It's slightly behind Peru and Morocco and barely ahead of Bolivia when it comes to how its people and business community view the national government.

The difficulty in getting ahead in the Philippines partly explains why many of its citizens have left the country and now comprise one of the largest expatriate populations in the world. Just how exactly Filipinos would benefit from this petition, potential litigation and any compensation is a fair question to ask.

Nevertheless, this petition is a signal that the world’s largest companies -- especially those that prove obstinate when it comes to climate change science -- are on notice. Developing countries often view climate change as a problem generated by richer nations that created a mess for which they have refused to take responsibility. These same countries want to modernize their economies in the way that nations including the U.S., Japan and European powers were able to over the past two centuries. But, if such options are limited due to GHG restrictions, the logic follows that the energy and extractive industries can write the checks needed to remediate the environment, in turn helping to build a better life for the people in countries that are ravaged by climate change but lack the resources needed for prevention and mitigation.

Image credit: Asian Development Bank/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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