Payback time for the planet’s big polluters
“DO YOU think it is correct that polluters never own up to their responsibility?”
This was the question posed by a Peruvian farmer in the course of demanding that RWE, a German energy company, pay him compensation for its role in contributing to climate change. The farmer has been “acutely threatened” by a glacial lake that could burst its banks.
And this exact question also permeated the discussions in a recent Human Rights and Climate Change forum jointly organized by Greenpeace Southeast Asia and the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights (CHR).
The science is clear: There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is happening and humans are contributing to it. Perhaps the longest running question since the dawn of the discussions on climate change was: “Who is responsible for this?” Ask anyone and the response will be: “We are all responsible.” But this is simply not true.
This is about to change.
In a peer-reviewed study, scientist Richard Heede has estimated that just 90 entities—the largest multinational and state-owned producers of coal, oil and gas—are responsible for two-thirds or 63 percent of industrial cumulative carbon pollution since the Industrial Revolution. Historic emissions are the chief driver of climate change and over the years consumers have been using the fossil fuel companies’ products as intended.
This groundbreaking study clearly shows that those who have contributed the lion’s share of greenhouse gas emissions can now be named and challenged for their role in the climate crisis, which countries like the Philippines is now experiencing.
The recent independent reports submitted by the Climate Vulnerable Forum, chaired by the Philippines, contain some very grim predictions for the Philippines. The report on labor issues shows that adverse consequences of extreme heat resulting from climate change are projected to result in up to 17 percent of lost work hours in 2055 and up to 22 percent in 2085.
The report on migration and displacement stipulates that sudden-onset weather-related hazards triggered 85 percent of all global displacement between 2008 and 2013, equaling some 140 million people, most of whom are from developing countries. Let us not forget the more than 16 million people who were affected by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name “Haiyan”) alone, and more than four million displaced.
During the Climate Change and Human Rights forum, a community leader from Batangas lamented the injustice of having to move and relocate homes as a result of climate change that is not even their own doing. This begs the question: Where are those responsible for climate change?
Thus far, the fossil fuel industry remains invincible, hiding behind the cloak of their vast wealth and power. They have bankrolled the governments and controlled political debate on climate change, thereby constraining us from attaining sustainable development. In order for us to create an enabling environment for change, we must break away from the tight grip of the fossil fuel industry and require them to live up to the moral and legal responsibility to prevent further harm to people who are acutely vulnerable to climate change.
There is a huge mismatch between the astronomical profits that the companies are making from burning fossil fuels vis-à-vis the cost unjustly being shouldered by those suffering or threatened by impacts of climate change. This is why companies are being asked to keep the fossil fuels in the ground and not block clean technologies that will close the door on pollution and help us transition to a clean future powered by renewable energy.
The fight against big tobacco saved millions of lives from the lies and deceit propagated by the industry. It was a battle that took 30 years before it brought about a sea change in opinion and instituting landmark laws.
The case of the tobacco industry has several parallelisms with the fossil fuel industry, perhaps even more nefarious in its propaganda that is backed by the climate deniers. No amount of green-washing can erase the fact that the fossil fuel industry is responsible for pumping carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere, creating a climate crisis that is threatening our basic human rights.
We do not have 30 years to fight the big polluters. Drastic cuts to carbon emissions have to happen now before the heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere suffocate us.
To the question: “Do you think it is correct that polluters never own up to their responsibility?” We say NO. Let us be inspired by the brave act of the Peruvian farmer and the people all over the world who are exhausting all possible options and alternatives to bring justice to the victims of climate change and hold polluters responsible for their activities. We are rising up to exact accountability against the fossil fuel industry to protect our home from climate change. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that the planet can sustain human beings—for the present and future generations.
There is a growing movement for climate justice where ordinary people are taking the fight into their own hands—in the streets, in the oceans, in the courtrooms, on trading floors, and even on the ice—to ensure our survival.
Anna Abad is Greenpeace Southeast Asia’s climate justice campaigner. She holds a master’s degree in public administration from National University of Singapore-Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
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