THE rise of fossil fuel divestment in the Philippines has been slow for the past few years, partly due to a lack of enabling environment for corporations. Yet a recent development may have just provided the much-needed boost for this trend to accelerate.

On May 6, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) officially publicized the findings of its National Inquiry on Climate Change (NICC). The seven-year inquiry focused on examining whether fossil fuel corporations or "carbon majors" can be held liable for human rights violations associated with climate change impacts.

The NICC report is significant because it provides affirmation that the climate crisis is not just a scientific issue that seems unrelatable to many people. It frames the climate crisis as a human rights issue, a key development in a nation considered as highly vulnerable to its impacts.

Integral to the concept of climate justice is the ability of peoples to exercise their rights in pursuit of a better life, including access to basic necessities such as food and water and living in a secure environment. Because of the pollutive actions of carbon majors, these rights have been threatened, if not violated.

Obfuscation and obstruction

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By burning fossil fuels that worsen global warming and conducting destructive extractive operations, these profit-first activities have brought about numerous impacts on the most vulnerable peoples. This ranges from being displaced from their homes to losing their livelihoods.

The injustices that millions have experienced are worsened by how carbon majors have been intentionally misinforming the public about the climate crisis. As early as the 1960s, fossil fuel industries are shown to block efforts to address this global issue, from lobbying in global climate negotiations to spreading climate denial through major news platforms; the latter even occurs in high-risk nations such as the Philippines.

Such obfuscation and obstruction is considered a violation of the United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (UNGP). Endorsed in 2011 by the UN Human Rights Council, it outlines the framework for states and corporations' responsibility in protecting and respecting human rights, as well as access to remedies for persons in case of failure of these entities to do so.

What the NICC report shows us is how interdependent and interconnected our human rights are. We cannot look into environmental, social and cultural rights without considering civil and political rights, especially with an issue as complex and severe as the climate crisis. And in contrast to what carbon majors would try to say, the business and human rights issues of the climate crisis cannot be separated in this context.

In effect, this also humanizes the issue of fossil fuel divestment. This does not just involve the movement of the finances of a bank, corporation, or any other institution away from dirty energy industries into more sustainable systems. It does not just concern the reputation of board members or shareholders with direct involvement in such investments.

What happens with billions worth of funding affects the well-being of billions of people. Every cent, every emission and every word matters. The longer the necessary just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy takes means more loss and damage would be unjustly experienced by those least responsible for the climate crisis.

This is further highlighted by the findings referencing the Catholic encyclical Laudato Si'. In this document, Pope Francis calls for a "leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations." Achieving sustainable development, inherently linked with protecting human rights, cannot be apart from intergenerational solidarity.

No matter which angle we use, the NICC report, the Laudato Si', or the UNGP, they all refer to the same undeniable fact: carbon majors have the moral obligation to respect human rights. It is through this context that the CHR fully supports the validity of fossil fuel divestment as a strategy to mitigate the climate crisis.

What's next?

While the NICC report is considered legally binding, that does not mean it is a pointless process. First, these findings represent political influence and the formulation of a precedent that human rights institutions in other countries could follow. This would then result in the creation of norms that pressure corporations toward a climate-aligned transformation of its practices and policies, including on their investments.

Second, the report provides victims of climate-related disasters, civil society groups and other stakeholders the guidance needed to file climate litigation on carbon majors. The CHR cites the following as among grounds for lawsuits: lack of honesty and good faith by corporations in relevant transactions; lack of transparency in administrative and regulatory matters; and lack of proper disclosure to shareholders and investors.

Third, the State must also do its part in upholding the rights of its citizens, especially the most vulnerable communities to the climate crisis. To further enable divestment, the Philippine government needs to conduct actions, such as to discourage dependence on fossil fuels, make the UNGP legally binding in the national context, provide legal protection to environmental defenders, and compensate victims of climate change impacts.

The NICC has been heralded as the first inquiry by a national human rights institution to decisively frame climate change as a human rights issue. What should not be lost in the conversation is its impacts on strengthening fossil fuel divestment and other key actions to initiate the right kind of change against climate change.

John Leo is the deputy executive director of programs and campaigns of Living Laudato Si' Philippines and a member of the interim secretariat of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas. He has been representing Philippine civil society in regional and global UN conferences on climate and the environment since 2017. He has been a climate and environmental journalist since 2016.