By: John Leo C. Algo

For almost 40 years, the fossil fuel industry has been keeping a huge secret from the general public. They have known that their products including oil, coal, and natural gas are the primary causes of global warming and the resulting climate change worldwide. 

That was revealed with the release of a report last year by the American Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Known as “The Climate Deception Dossiers”, these documents reveal that major fossil fuel companies such as Exxon Mobil have been considering the climate implications of their projects since as early as the 1980s. Despite this knowledge, they instead embarked on campaigns that deny the reality of climate change to politicians, fellow businessmen, and the public and oppose mitigation measures.

This has led to a rapid increase in industrial carbon emissions for the past 30 years, which may have caused the various extreme weather events that has devastated different areas of the world. With the monthly global temperature increase exceeding 1 degree Celsius and the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration surpassing 400 ppm, a level scientists remark as a point of no return, future climate impacts are projected to cause more destruction to humanity and nature alike.

By continuing to pollute the planet with greenhouse gases for monetary gains despite their knowledge of the threats brought by these pollutants, the fossil fuel industry has placed the lives of millions of people in danger for the past few decades. The impacts of climate change are especially more destructive on the vulnerable sectors such as the poor, the youth, women, and indigenous peoples, who have lesser means to protect themselves and take action against the culprits of such events. Without a system of accountability for major greenhouse gas polluters, corporations are poised to keep on polluting the atmosphere and the environment and further fuel climate change.

Legal action against the fossil fuel companies may be conducted under the guiding principles of the Paris Agreement, specifically on climate justice. Its recognition as a key factor when taking climate action is widely considered one of the hallmark achievements of the agreement. However, the specific protocols for how climate justice will be applied on existing and future policies remains to be solidified. Procedures for corporate accountability should be one of the key issues to be discussed at COP22 in Morocco, especially with the Paris Agreement inching closer to entering into force through ratification.

In the Philippines, petitioners comprised of climate advocates, non-government organizations, and victims of typhoons that struck the country filed a complaint to the Philippine Commission on Human Rights (CHR) against 47 fossil fuel and cement companies that emitted the largest amounts of greenhouse gases on Sept. 15 last year. This landmark move against industry giants at the forefront of climate change impacts serves as a template for other national governments to take action against the fossil fuel industry both globally and in their respective areas.   

“This courageous undertaking can only succeed with the unifying support of government agencies, communities, civil society organizations and other human rights institutions from all over the globe. Climate Justice is not the Philippines’ fight alone, the outcomes of this petition may mean a better life for countless souls, but we all have to do this together,” said Anna Abad of Greenpeace Southeast Asia in a prepared statement on May 27.

The CHR has sent the complaint to major companies such as Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and Chevron, accusing them of violating fundamental human rights for basic necessities and a good quality of life. While lacking the power to enforce carbon emission reductions against these companies, it can launch an investigation and may formulate recommendations that can serve as a basis for governments and courts to demand action from them, including directly facing the victims of extreme events.

As climate change affects virtually affects every aspect of our lives, the fossil fuel industry must be held accountable for their role in triggering anthropogenic climate change and harming populations worldwide. We must demand that these corporations pay for their share of the costs of climate-related damages and help fund the establishment of resilient communities. We should also require their full disclosure and transparency of their past and current activities and transactions, as well as the financial and physical risks of climate change to their businesses.  

More importantly, we should demand from the fossil fuel industry to use their resources to support sustainable, cost-effective policies for reducing carbon emissions. They should also fund information dissemination campaigns to raise public awareness about the new climate reality our world finds itself in. With the Paris Agreement nearing enforcement, these companies must change their business models to meet the global emissions cap and ensure a greener future. 

In the past, the revelation of the actions of major tobacco companies to support misinformation campaigns despite knowing its detrimental public health impacts fueled massive legal action that led to the industry being banned from relevant policymaking. With the health of our entire planet on the line, we need to take a similar yet stronger approach to ensure that the fossil fuel industry will bear responsibility for its major role in fueling anthropogenic climate change.

John C. Algo is a Manila-based researcher for the Climate Reality Project Philippines and a representative, Philippine Youth Climate Movement