By Vaidehee Sachdev, Senior Research Manager

Last week, London was host to the Philippines Human Rights Commission and a two-day hearing, following previous sessions in the Philippines and New York. The hearings form part of a ground-breaking inquiry, instigated by a petition submitted in 2015 by Filipino communities and civil society organisations following a series of devastating typhoons. The timing of the hearings was significant, marking the 5th anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan – the most powerful storm to make landfall in history, killing over 6,000 people and displacing over 4 million, destroying homes, livelihoods, and landscapes.

The petition asked the Commission to investigate the responsibility of 47 ‘Carbon Major’ companies for climate-related human rights impacts. The inquiry represents an unprecedented and brave move by a national human rights institution to investigate and hear evidence from victims, civil society, climate and human rights experts. Despite hearings being held in London and New York closer to the headquarters of the fossil fuel industry and the financial markets that enable them, none of the 47 companies have taken part in the process so far, some even choosing to undermine the process altogether.

While the Commission lacks the legal authority to provide compensation to the victims, if the investigation finds that human rights have been violated, an important link between the activities of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the world and those that suffer the most as a result will be established, with the prospect of the case being taken up by a court of law.

Litigation risk arising from human rights impacts of climate change is a real material issue that companies and their shareholders should be alert to.

This is important moment in the conversation about climate change and human rights obligations. In recent years, various developments have helped deepen the link between the two and this should provide some stark warnings to both the companies and shareholders at the centre of the debate. Climate science has advanced our understanding of the connection between human activity and extreme weather events or ‘extreme weather event attribution’ to the point where the question ‘Did climate change contribute to that event?’ is no longer relevant. Instead we have to ask, ‘To what extent did climate change contribute to that extreme weather event?’

We are also much more aware of where and who are at greatest risk from climate change impacts, with low-income countries and small island states repeatedly affected and disadvantaged and marginal communities, particularly those dependent on agricultural and coastal livelihoods most at risk. We know for instance that climate change is forcing the migration of vast numbers of people almost on a daily basis, that land degradation is forcing smallholder farmers into new territories, and that extreme weather is a leading cause of food scarcity.

These are impacts being felt right now, affecting millions of peoples’ lives – these are regions and individuals on the ‘front line’ of climate change impacts and are costing governments and individuals billions of pounds to remedy.

While the impacts of historic fossil fuel activity are already being felt so severely by people all over the world, industry continues to push forward with activity that will undoubtedly result in even more severe impacts in the future. This is why climate change can no longer be conceived of solely as an environmental issue, and this inquiry and the growing human rights based movement emerging on climate change are so welcome. They are all premised on the idea that those most responsible for climate change, and have knowingly contributed and continue to contribute to it should pay for the damage they have caused. Litigation risk is therefore a real material issue that companies and their shareholders should be alert to. The industry only has to look at the tobacco industry to see an example of how science, causal links, and litigation helped tobacco companies contribute to their own demise.

Shareholders must take action now before their investments go sour by filing resolutions that push companies to align their businesses with Paris.

But companies and shareholders need not wait for litigation. There is another course of urgent action that can be taken. Shareholders in particular have an opportunity to lead action rather than, as Jeffrey Sachs puts it, “watch their investments go sour”. They can take bold action such as file progressive shareholder resolutions that push companies to align their businesses models with the goals of the Paris Agreement, and that minimise the impact of any carbon intensive activity.

Investors, financial institutions and policy makers also need to demonstrate more coherence in their policy frameworks. In preparing for a low-carbon economy, the European Commission has an excellent opportunity to ensure that definitions of sustainable investment, like renewable technology, have human rights embedded at their core. This is essential to avoid repeating the poor human rights records of the carbon-intensive industry as well as to support a fair and just economy for workers and communities.

It is notable that many of the companies ranked lowest in the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark released last week are also carbon majors. Our progress on meeting the 1.5-degree climate scenario and achieving human rights protections for all will to a greater extent depend on these companies, and the financial markets that enable them, to urgently transform their business models. Whether they pursue this new pathway voluntarily or through the courts will remain to be seen.

Thanks Vaidehee! To find out more about ShareAction’s policy work, click here.