Oilsands Firms ‘Morally Responsible’ for Deaths and Destruction from Climate Disasters, Greenpeace’s Yeb Saño explains what a Philippines human rights investigation means for the fossil fuel industry in Canada by Geoff Dembicki, Dec 18, 2019, TheTyee.ca
Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee. His work also appears in Vice, Foreign Policy and the New York Times.
Four years ago, the Philippines Commission on Human Rights began posing an incendiary question.
Should 47 of the planet’s most polluting companies have to answer legally for the deaths and suffering caused by climate change?
This includes the more than 6,300 Filipinos who died in 2013 during Typhoon Haiyan, which was made more destructive by rising global temperatures.
Four of the companies named in the investigation are Canadian oilsands producers — Canadian Natural Resources, Encana, Husky and Suncor — and Canadian environmental law experts like York University’s David Estrin presented evidence at hearings held by the commission.
The commission, established in the Philippines constitution, announced its findings last week at the COP25 climate talks in Madrid.
While the commission cannot make legal rulings, it found that the fossil fuel companies under investigation are “morally responsible” for death and destruction linked to their business model. Some legal experts think this could be a starting point for civil and criminal cases against those companies.
The Tyee spoke with Greenpeace Southeast Asia executive director Naderev Yeb Saño, who was in Madrid for the climate talks, about the implications of the commission’s decision for Canadian oilsands producers and the political leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who support them. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The Tyee: What did the commission decide? What was announced in Madrid last week?
Yeb Saño: The commission basically found that climate change constitutes an emergency situation. And it further concluded that the fossil fuel companies who are respondents in this case played a clear role in worsening climate change and its consequences. It also put forward the idea that climate-related human rights violations may be adjudicated under human rights law and can be addressed by human rights bodies or by other international institutions. This is the first time ever that a human rights body stated that fossil fuel companies can be found legally and morally liable for harms linked to climate change.
Four Canadian oilsands companies were named in the investigation. What does the commission’s decision mean for companies like them?
This is unprecedented. We’re trying to analyze what this means for the fossil fuel company respondents. What we think the implications of this could be for companies, including those four companies from Canada, is that they will have to face more forms of legal action in the future. The commission was also emphasizing in its statements that the legal liability for causing climate change is in some ways equal to the moral liability. So this sets a precedent in terms of moral responsibility. These companies will have to face that.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau bought a pipeline with the goal of expanding oilsands production. So if companies that are involved in that industry are morally liable for human rights violations, does that make governments also liable?
In my view, I think the moral liability extends to those who allow fossil fuel companies to inflict harm, especially when it comes to human rights harms, the focus of this case. So if for example, Suncor is held morally liable, or any other company that the government in Canada is supporting, then would make the government complicit in the harms.
How would you expect to see courts in specific countries or jurisdictions use the findings of the Commission on Human Rights?
We are mindful that there are different legal frameworks in different jurisdictions. Future cases in courts will be able to build on what the Commission on Human Rights in the Philippines has accomplished and, based on their own laws and context, can hold fossil fuel companies liable for climate-related harms. The primary legal significance of the commission’s investigation is an acknowledgement that companies investing in new fossil fuel projects are knowingly committing human rights violations. That includes building a new coal-fired power plant or a tarsands projects or an oil pipeline.
Ordinary people need to take a stand. They need to be extraordinary in extraordinary times.
And I think this is the moment for people to join the global movement on climate change. Because we see a groundswell of legal cases on climate change happening in different parts of the world. I think it’s time that people support that, and also go beyond litigation. People need to stand with young people expressing their frustration and indignation against climate injustice and inaction. There’s lots of things that individuals can do. But what I would say to individual people is that they should not believe even for a second that this is any individual’s fault. The climate crisis is the fault of the fossil fuel industry largely, and the governments that support it. This crisis has been caused by the decisions of a few, which have affected the lives of so many.
Let’s look ahead to the year 2030. What’s a best-case scenario for what the world could look like if ordinary people convinced governments and other institutions to actually take this emergency seriously?
2030 is just around the corner, it’s 10 years away. The fossil fuel industry for so long denied the science and hid the truth from the public. And we’ve lost a lot of time because of that. We could have had a head start in solving climate change, but now we are in a climate emergency. I have absolutely no illusion that things will be better in 10 years. Things will get worse before they get better. But my optimistic side sees in 10 years a world that is truly on its way to eliminating fossil fuels. It should be already on its way to towards the end of the fossil fuel era. That would allow us to truly move towards a cleaner future.
A few of the comments:
The world is already over-supplied with crude. As Art Berman notes it was US and Canadian producers who flooded the market with oil and caused the crash in 2014, similar to the 1980-82 recession. US foreign policy has removed from the market significant fractions of Venezuelan, Iranian, Syrian, and Libyan crude without significantly affecting world crude prices. Even removal by missile attack of significant Saudi refining and shipping facilities didn’t move prices much, or for long. Texas fracked shale oil producers can’t make a profit in the unregulated home of the oil and gas industry. They can’t even cover capital expenditures required to drill and produce oil. Forget about paying existing debt or dividends, this requires more debt. In some cases, Permian fracked natural gas prices have fallen below zero, meaning they pay someone to buy their gas.
Yes, by all means hold the feet of the oil and gas industry to the fire (and all the financiers of it–especially central/private/shadow banks who continue to create ‘money’ from nothing and fund it–and the politicians who continue to support, sustain, and encourage it–particularly due to their obsession with perpetual growth). However, we are all guilty to a lesser or greater extent. The politicians. The banks. The corporations. The media. The consumers. The procreators. We are all guilty of being part of a complex system that we not only depend upon but sustain through our very existence and from which we cannot extricate ourselves. The idea that our current systems can survive in any recognizable form without fossil fuels is magical thinking as I have argued on this site before. Not that I am advocating continued use of fossil fuels or not attempting to mitigate the inevitable crises ahead but there are no ‘clean’ energy sources. Each and every one of us depends not only on processes that require fossil fuels but on environmentally-destructive processes and finite resources. If there is a ‘solution’, it lies in abandoning growth in most of its forms (but especially resource use, economics, and population) and embracing a degrowth culture. Since most people (particularly in so-called ‘advanced’ economies and especially those at the top of the economic/financial pyramid) will rail against such an approach, it would appear that the collapse that accompanies diminishing returns and ecological overshoot is all but guaranteed. I hope I’m wrong but our species pre/history suggests otherwise.
Steve salal Part of our dilemma, I’m afraid, is that our financial/economic systems have become little more than a fraudulent Ponzi scheme that can only be kept from imploding by the pursuit of growth, and this necessitates that the ‘front men’ of the scheme (our politicians and bankers) keep the engine of our economic growth (cheap energy, especially fossil fuels) growing, even though they are well aware (but deny it) that it is detrimental to our long-term survival. I mean, really, what could possibly go wrong with infinite growth on a finite planet?
Chevy salal good observation.watched a news report on this travesty of justice to peoples on APTN and before that on the Amazon Jungle and what the rich (even some hollywood actors?) intend to do with the lungs of the earth deforested. Another get rich sick plan that will fail for sure. Like it is a rain forest and hell have no wrath like mother nature.
What all this adds up to, what few people want to acknowledge, is the total ending of what is essentially unrestricted capitalism. Unless and until that happens, there is no saving humanity.
As long as our efforts are framed in a way that suggests we can manage the impacts of a changing climate on our physical, economic, social, political and psychological situations we will ignore the fact we have exceeded the earth’s ability to recover from the ongoing depletion of key carbon-sequestering components that, in the past, acted to stabilize CO2.
Political promotion of technological solutions that claim they will eliminate or reduce carbon emissions … conversion to natural gas, solar and wind power, dams, nuclear power, carbon capture, etc. … will not stop further (locked in) environmental destruction. They will accelerate the rate of decline.
Unfortunately the focus on a single factor contributing to climate disruption, the fossil fuel industry, has obscured the larger systemic action steps needed for changing a system that is failing us, and the planet: environmentally destructive, exploitive, dysfunctional social behaviours that lie at the heart of the changes driving climate disruption have been sidelined.
No industrial or growing nation is innocent, that’s for sure. I would not agree with attempts to transport products long distances or power our economies (especially anything like they are currently organized) as ‘sustainable’; and it doesn’t matter how ‘green’ the power might be. Everything needs to be small and as local as possible. And if the local environment can’t sustain the population, then the population shouldn’t be there. I think of my home province of Ontario that with its millions of inhabitants (and growing) long ago overshoot the region’s natural carrying capacity, relying on 90+% of its food to be imported…and with climate changing, perhaps very quickly, one’s continuing reliance on long-distant supply chains to keep one fed is the ultimate in cargo-cult like, magical thinking.
The first thing we need to do is stop pursuing growth (both population and economic) and pursue degrowth strategies, as I have repeatedly argued on this site.
As far as what I’ve done to ‘solve’ the problem: first, I don’t believe there is a ‘solution’ primarily because of the complexity, the momentum of the various systems, and how late in the ‘game’ we are–to say little about the fact that almost all of us in so-called ‘advanced’ economies are virtually entirely dependent on our fossil fuel-dependent systems, as you say “… look where we live. How are we supposed to feed ourselves and heat our homes.” Second, I personally have reduced my consumption, travel, leisure/entertainment activities, etc. significantly. Third, I have explored and put into practice organic food production on our small property in an attempt to provide as much of our own food as possible and this past growing season participated in and supported a local, organic farmshare program that kept us well-fed in greens and veggies up until last week’s finally pickup that will provide us with locally-grown food for this and next week’s dinners). There are numerous other things as well…you?
I don’t have a car and havn’t flown since I discovered that the oil companies were lying to us that they wern’t destabilizing the climate.
people think the viable solution is to go with new products that don’t involve digging into the earth.
people need to slow down, stop having so many babies (adopt right), look back at the way our ancestors did things without much technology and use our advanced technology to improve our gifted ways and help the entire world be a better place to live, work and promote peace and harmony. Imagine!
Like if everybody made that their new years resolution it would be the start of something better!
Nobody but the fossil fuel industries themselves are responsible for their calculated and heavily financed decades of lies and knowing denialism, also the callous offloading of huge incidental environmental and health costs of carrying on their business.
They also perpetrated a huge fraud on their own shareholders.
They are still lying about the economics of shale gas fracking (which critics have described as a Ponzi scheme) which is facing imminent collapse with huge losses for their investors, and huge losses for banks which are going to bounce back on everybody who does banking.
We are only responsible for the effects of fossil fuel use to the extent that we had any choice — any informed choice — in our sources of energy. The fossil fuel industry has done everything within its power to take that choice away. Case in point, their surreptitious purchase and closure of profitable electrical powered street car lines all over North America.
I am glad to see that the writer has made mention of the devastating and catastrophic Typhoon Haiyan in the Phillipines in 2013 which seemed little noticed at the time it happened and was soon forgotten by the rest of the world.
That typhoon was the worst in Phillipines history and killed an estimated 6,300 people or more (as noted). In addition, the United Nations reported that 1.9 million people were made homeless. That one event killed many times all the U.S. hurricane deaths over the last 30 years. That is not to discount the many deaths in Puerto Rico from hurricane Maria, which is chiefly remembered for the derisible relief provided by Donald Trump with tossed paper towels.
It is confidently determined by climatologists that the extreme severity of Haiyan was because of ocean warming from climate change and GHGs, and that there will be similar and possibly worse storms in the future. U.S. southwest states, please note.
There is currently a legal protection in place for business to produce products that consumers want to buy. This seems to absolve them of moral or legal responsibility. Business concepts find in favour of the market, or consumer, who will dictate if and how a product is used. We find ourselves in a predicament where, globally, ‘government’ has refused and is in fact unable to implement fundamental environmental protection in order to safeguard the long term functionality of the biosphere. This is the issue. It is actually not the oil companies, or the plastics manufacturers, the mining companies or the industrial chemical/pharmaceutical complex that is at fault of earth destruction: it is governments [It’s judges that did this, not govts], at all levels, on every continent, which have allowed corporate rights to overshadow global human, ecological and earth focused rights. By that I mean: strong laws that control industry and limit ecological rape, curtail production, stop unbridled wealth creation, limit extraction and consumption will eventually, hopefully, prevent corporate and investor greed from destroying any possible recovery mechanism the earth might still be capable of. Earth needs functioning water, soil, air and biological processes to continue to sustain life. These are its organs. We are part of living Earth. Earth is dying, because we all have been too greedy and idiotic.
Don’t blame industry. Industry exists within a legal framework established by government. Blame government. [Nope, blame the judges, starting with the first over a hundred years ago who ruled that corporations are people.] Blame partisan government appointed judges. Blame an unelected Canadian Senate which as a result of intense legal corporate lobbying destroys bills created by an elected Parliament. Bills intended to improve environmental oversight of earth damaging projects. Blame the environmental review process.
The earth must be given the legal right to existence…and leaders [and judges!!!!] should be held responsible for their actions.
Refer also to:
Rhode Island vs 21 Oil & Gas Companies: Judge William Smith characterized operations “leading to all kinds of displacement, death (extinctions, even), and destruction…. Defendants understood the consequences of their activity decades ago…. But instead of sounding the alarm, Defendants went out of their way to becloud the emerging scientific consensus and further delay changes – however existentially necessary – that would in any way interfere with their multi-billion-dollar profits.”