The controversial election of Bongbong Marcos as President of the Philippines on May 9th overshadowed another Filipino news item of global importance that week. After a nearly 7-year-long inquiry, the Philippines Human Rights Commission published a huge document detailing how human rights are infringed by climate change, who is responsible, and what courts could do about it.
Bertie talked to the Executive Director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Yeb Saño, about the groundbreaking report.
Hello and welcome to the Economy, Land and Climate Podcast. My name is Bertie Harrison-Broninski, and for this episode I spoke to Yeb Saño, currently the Executive Director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, and previously the Chief Negotiator for the Philippines in the UN Climate Convention, about a groundbreaking report from the Philippines Human Rights Commission. The report identifies the human rights infringed by climate change, the companies responsible for those infringements, and how those companies and governments should be held legally accountable.Yeb:
If the boardrooms of the corporations that are identified as respondents to our case do not respond at all to this breakthrough, then I don't know how we will ever avert the climate crisis because I think this should send some shockwaves into those boardrooms, into the community of shareholders of these corporations.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
Our conversation came as Bongbong Marcos, son of infamous ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, had just been elected as the new Filipino President for the next six years. I began by asking for a background to how the report had come about.Yeb:
We of course were inspired by the energy around the communities and people impacted by climate impacts in the Philippines. And Super Typhoon Haiyan was, of course, a defining moment for the country. And that led to the impetus on filing this particular petition with the Commission on Human Rights in 2015, almost seven years ago, together with many other community organisations, NGOs, and individuals who had survived extreme climate events, we decided to put this case together. And it's been a long journey, close to seven years. And even before we filed the case, in 2015, it was a couple of years since Super Typhoon Haiyan, then so a lot of things have been transpiring. And we've been getting a lot of inspiration from, you know, the courage of people who refuse to believe that there's nothing we can do about the climate crisis. And then the seminal work of Rick Heede, working on climate accountability, and identifying all of these corporations, roughly 100 corporations, responsible for about two thirds of the climate crisis, a lion's share of the climate crisis. And that led us to think, wow, these things can actually be attributed to somebody. And so we tried it, we, in fact, had a very deep dive into how we will do it. And there were options to fight the case in a regular court of law, there were options to file it with the Supreme Court for example of the Philippines and make it a test case. But after much discussion with all of the petitioners, we decided, why not try the national human rights institutions such as the Philippine Commission on Human Rights? After all, what we were trying to assert is that climate change is infringing on the basic enjoyment of human rights. So, so we did that. And in September 2015, we got together and lodged the case.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
And I think I'm right in saying this is the first report or inquiry like this from a national human rights institution. I know the report talks a little bit at the beginning about how Inuit communities tried something similar in America a while back. Did you think anything would actually come with this petition? Or did you expect it to be a flop?Yeb:
Yes, and no. There's always a lot of room for, I think, skepticism around landmark cases that are unprecedented like this. So since indeed, it is the first of its kind, there is no precedent, there is no model for it. No one knows how other jurisdictions have treated anything like this before. So yes, definitely a lot of of worry in our hearts and in our heads whether this would prosper. But then again, we were in a situation where the Commission on Human Rights in the Philippines was seen as a very progressive institution, and understood the reality of climate change. And so that gave us some hope that the commission would set out to work very profoundly on this issue, and they did.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
It's a huge document that has been produced looking into the various human rights that are infringed by climate change, who's responsible and potentially what people could do about that to hold governments and companies accountable. How do you feel about it? Are you pleased with the result? And also has it made any kind of real impact in the Philippines? Are people talking about this?Yeb:
And on the first question, it goes without saying that we're very happy that it's finally out. Because it's been a long waiting game for us. We launched it in 2015, as I told you, and then the public hearing hearings happened in around 2017 2018, including one in London, one in New York, it's been quite a long, long wait for for us. So just to see it finally released is a big relief for us. It's a reason for us to celebrate the triumph of climate justice. And I have described this many times as a vindication for those who are experiencing firsthand at the frontlines of climate impacts. And so it's a very important report, I think. And while I think this should merit a lot of attention, not just in the Philippines, but globally, it also came at such a disorienting time in the Philippines, when we were about to have our national elections, selecting the next president of the country. And it's been a very polarised situation. I think that in the Philippines it's not even unique in that sense. It's happening in many parts of the world where the climate crisis is becoming a secondary issue compared to all of the things happening, whether it's the shrinking of civic and democratic space, fake news, and then of course conflicts like the invasion of Ukraine. A lot of things are happening that that, in particular, when this report was released, no one was paying attention to this, really. And so I couldn't say whether this is resonating loudly right now, because of the circumstances under which it was released. But we have of course gotten a lot of questions from the media. And in the community of climate justice activists, of course, it has been well celebrated.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
You mentioned the international context there. Do you think this will have an impact abroad, it clearly addresses lots of international issues. And a lot of the companies it's talking about are foreign. How significant is the precedent that's being set with a national human rights institution doing something like this?Yeb:
I'd like to believe so yes, and that was the original intention for filing this case. So that it would strengthen the alarm bells being sounded by the scientific community, by communities impacted by climate change. And I would think that this could provide a necessary push to the seeming lack of ambition that we see in the implementation of the Paris Agreement. I mean, the Paris Agreement was agreed also in 2015. Same year, we filed this case, and it just becomes frustrating for us to see that the Paris Agreement was proven to be not enough at all, to provide what is necessary to avert the climate crisis. And then the commitments that are supposed to come with it are not forthcoming. And that's why we have decided that the climate justice work cannot be confined in the plenary halls of the UN, we need to go further and creative legal action, including pieces of litigation, we think could accelerate, could catalyse action. And if the boardrooms of the corporations that are identified as respondents to our case do not respond at all to to this breakthrough, then I don't know how we will ever avert the climate crisis, because I think this should send some shockwaves into those boardrooms, into the into the community of shareholders of these corporations. Even if this is not something that would provide any legal sanctions. I think the message is clear. What has been identified in a way that's never been done before is that, for the first time, a formal institution has declared that climate change is responsible for the violation of human rights, that businesses have been involved in willful obfuscation and deception and could be held morally liable for that. If I were a shareholder of one of these companies, I'd be very worried. So that's, that's one of the intentions of this whole journey. And then not just companies, of course, governments need to pay attention to this. And I'm actually quite glad that a few colleagues, from my former circles, in the diplomatic circles have reached out asking me to present the findings, or how I feel about the findings in the next UNFCCC section in Bonn. I might not be able to go there, but at least all of these signals are showing positive signs.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
I think I'm right in saying that none of the content of the report is legally enforcible in itself, but there is a lot of legal discussion within it. Right? And one of those parts is discussing how businesses could be held legally accountable by incorporating the UN guiding principles on business and human rights into domestic law. Do you think that that's something that could happen now, as a result of this report? How significant was that analysis?Yeb:
A lot of the hope that we have rests on the way that principles for example, including the respect for human rights in the context of how companies run their business, in the way that they actually resonate in those communities of people, right. And we can only guess how they would respond really, and, of course, the UN is there, and then the discussion around business and human rights, that will really depend on whether 1) governments take that seriously, 2) whether companies take that seriously. And right now, it's not very easy to judge that. However, we will not stop, of course, after the resolution of this case, we will not stop, we will then use the findings of this case to further lobby for for the recommendations that have been identified, by the commission. So it will, of course, require a lot more groundwork, a lot more activism, it will require a lot more conversations. And that's why I'm always happy for friends who want to help tell the story like we are doing now.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
We haven't got time to discuss all of them in full. But I just quickly want to run through the list of human rights because we've now actually got an exhaustive list of human rights that are violated by climatechange. So the report discusses:
the right to life, the right to health, the right to food security, the right to water and sanitation, the right to livelihood, the right to adequate housing, the right to preservation of culture, the right to self determination and development, the right to equality and non discrimination, the right to safe, clean, healthy environments, and the right to intergenerational equity. Were there any there that surprised you? Or that you thought were particularly important to have now been platformed?Yeb:
The truth is, I was surprised that all of these things were even articulated in the report. Because it's one thing to just say, in a very general sense that climate change is in fact impacting on human rights. But to list down all of these rights, in detail, and providing examples and testimonies from people and communities affected by all of this is a big surprise for me. Of course, we have in our manifestations have mentioned all of these rights as very important. And so we're just really, very enthused no end that this has been brought up even a higher level by defining how these rights are being affected. So wonderful work by the Commission, articulating this very clearly.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
You mentioned earlier about the election that's just happened in the Philippines. And I did also want to talk to you about that. It wasn't lost on me that the very first paragraph of the report began by saying that, quote, "The Human Rights Commission was created under the banner of 'never again' after the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos, under whose rule thousands of Filipinos' human rights were trampled on." End quote. I guess I'll start by saying from the little I've heard and read about the election, it seems like intense policy debate wasn't a huge part of their campaigns. But is there any indication of how climate policy might change under Marcos Jr. in the Philippines?Yeb:
That's a really important question for us to ask, because the Philippines happens to be one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. And therefore, national leadership is key in helping us get through the storm. And even the literal storms that we face or the kind of adaptation measures we put in place, the kind of leapfrogging the Philippines takes in order to model the right kind of development that avoids the mistakes of industrialised countries. Unfortunately, the Marcos campaign never really had the inclination to even articulate any kind of platform. So they have not presented any concrete platform for governance. They have even avoided presidential debates and have not actively engaged on the issue. And in addition to that, we see that because of the highly polarised political picture right now, the priorities of the incoming administration will most likely focus on political consolidation of power rather than big picture issues, such as you know, climate policy. Just to be fair, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had been vocal about the acceleration of renewable energy development in the country, and that's good. However, he's also advocating for nuclear power, he's also advocating for genetically modified food. And so I think there is a lot more to do in terms of the conversation that we need to have with the incoming government. And what I also want to emphasise is expectations because injustice for us and at the heart of this petition at the CHR is injustice, climate injustice, in whatever form, but especially climate injustice, it's a consequence of historically unjust actions, right. So with the Marcos family, unyielding with their historical responsibility and persistent evasion of their accountability for their ill gotten wealth, there's little to expect from this incoming government when it comes to addressing anything that speaks about human rights, injustice, and defending the interests of the vulnerable and marginalised and fostering fairness across society. So that's a big problem. I always like to believe that a democratically mandated leadership such as the incoming administration, will have enough space and power coming from a landslide victory that we saw to do the things that are necessary to address especially the climate crisis. So we are still hoping that will happen, it would really be important for them to allow civic participation in all of these conversations. Otherwise, if we continue with the kind of impunity we have seen in previous years, it will be very difficult for us to expect anything of substance in the coming years. Of course, there is also the problem of participation in the international processes. I think I could say that this is an awkward moment for the Philippines having ousted Ferdinand Marcos, senior 36 years ago, everyone who would go to the UN will now be representing Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as a delegate. That could be very tricky.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
I know a lot of the focus in this report is on companies, particularly on the oil and gas majors like BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Shell, Total Energies, RWE, etc. They're all mentioned. But the report does also get stuck into government's role, and states that if governments don't have a climate strategy that they are transparent about, and that they can be held accountable to, that's framed as a legal issue and a human rights issue, too. So I was interested to ask you, I mean, does the Philippines have that kind of climate mitigation strategy that it can be held accountable to? Do you think that this report could be setting up the foundations of a legal framework to challenge the government over that?Yeb:
The situation right now for the Philippines is the country has NDCs that have been submitted. But these NDCs, the NDCs that are on the table are not necessarily ambitious. It has a lot of conditional aspects to it. So I think in terms of what is in place as mitigation actions that we can be held accountable for or that the Philippines can be held accountable for? I think, on one hand, it's not very clear, there's a lot of vagueness in that sense, because there are no specifics as to which sector would do that. A 70% reduction below business as usual is hard to measure because we won't even know what business as usual is really in terms of that emissions trajectory. So there's a lot to be done in order to clarify those. But on the other hand, the Philippines as we always assert, and even when I was a negotiator asserted, the rich countries, those have emitted the most need to lead this process. And so I don't think the Philippines need to be held accountable so much in terms of mitigation. But I think in terms of what is ethically possible for the Philippines, and what is, I think, unethical for the Philippines to avoid, we should look at that, for example, if there is tremendous opportunity for leapfrogging into cleaner development for if we can harness all of our renewable energy that's already available and at parity in terms of price with conventional fuels, then it would really be amoral or at least unethical for the Philippines not to pursue that kind of path. And therefore we can be measured as such, because if things are low hanging, and we fail to take those opportunities, then I think we should measure the country through those things. Same with adaptation measures, anything that increases the risk for people, if the Government continues with corruption that prevents us from providing the means to move people out of harm's way then that is something that government should be accountable for. That's how I see it, and this particular report has many good recommendations for governments. And I think many of these apply to developing countries like the Philippines, including the promotion of awareness and education, strengthening efforts for restorative ecosystem management. All of these things are here and then including just transition because we believe that if we are to transition towards cleaner development, we need to take into account the impacts on the labour sector, on the agriculture sector, and buffer those impacts and make sure that no one is left behind, because that's what it's all about. Justice is not just about fulfilling what science requires to solve the climate crisis, but also to make sure that science and justice serves its purpose.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
My thanks to Yeb Saño for coming on this podcast. Do check the description below. We'll link the full report if you want to read it. If you've enjoyed this episode, please do check out our other articles on www.elc-insight.org and subscribe or follow this podcast on whatever platform you choose to listen on. We'll be back soon with more interesting interviews with climate experts.