Philippines Commission Probes Fossils’ Accountability for Extreme Climate Impacts
The business writers at The Economist are paying attention to an inquiry launched by the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, aimed at determining for the first time whether the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters have violated basic human rights by causing climate change.
The hearings, which included a session in London, UK earlier this month, turn on three key bodies of knowledge: the devastating impacts of severe storms like Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013, the growing ability to attribute climate impacts back to specific carbon polluters, and whether fossils could have produced anything but fossil fuels when many of them first became aware of climate change and its impacts in the 1970s and 80s.
Like this story? Subscribe to The Energy Mix and never miss an edition of our free e-digest.
During the London session, Benjamin Schachter of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights pointed out that climate impacts “directly and indirectly threaten the full and effective enjoyment of a range of human rights, including the rights to life, water and sanitation, food, health, housing, self-determination and development.”
And University of Oxford climate modeler Myles Allen cited a 2015 study that accurately simulated the impact of Haiyan, then projected the weather patterns, wind speeds, and storm surge that would have occurred without industrial development. In 15 out of 16 simulations, the storm was weaker. Allen concluded that higher wind speeds led to a 20% higher storm surge—and that storm surge was what made the typhoon so devastating.
“It’s not true that but for human influence this event could never have happened,” he told the hearings. “But through this study you can see that human influence has exacerbated” Haiyan’s impact.
“Where the hearings become more unusual is in investigating the link between the damage caused by climate change and the behaviour of large industrial companies,” The Economist writes. “This is predicated on recent efforts to trace greenhouse gas emissions back to large corporate and state-owned producers of fossil fuels and cement, dubbed the ‘carbon majors’,” with a 2017 report by the non-profit CDP determining that just 100 big emitters produced half of the world’s emissions since the Industrial Revolution (and more than half since 1988).
“One issue is whether the companies could have taken another course of action,” The Economist concludes, citing Allen. “In other words, did they know the damage that their activities were causing and, given the need for energy to run modern societies, what options were available at the time to mitigate emissions?” The article refers in passing to the growing mountain of evidence that fossils understood the implications of climate change in time to change course, and cites Allen’s estimate that 40% of the global warming since pre-industrial times could have been avoided if emissions had stopped in the 1980s.
That leads into questions about whether energy alternatives were ready for prime time when the need for a transition first became clear, whether it would have been feasible for fossils to begin introducing carbon capture technologies in the 1980s—and if so, whether they should have.