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Urgency of the urgent

31 August 2018
Members of the indigenous Ifugao community share with the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines their testimonies on the impact of changing weather patterns on their planting and harvesting times, part of the National Inquiry on Climate Change that the Commission is undertaking. Photo credit: JC Yokingco

Members of the indigenous Ifugao community share with the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines their testimonies on the impact of changing weather patterns on their planting and harvesting times, part of the National Inquiry on Climate Change that the Commission is undertaking. Photo credit: JC Yokingco

Dr. Pedro Walpole

Seemingly forgotten public documents and scientific studies are revealing the extent of the fossil fuel industry’s research on climate change as early as the late 1950s along with the warnings from the industry’s scientists, but these were taken over by the cover-ups and misinformation that followed during the 1970s and 1980s.  These were surprising revelations presented during the National Inquiry on Climate Change (NICC) by the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, conveying more urgently the urgency in addressing the increasing vulnerability of millions of people to the impacts of climate change.

The Commission brings this historical record to light by listening to the reports of climate investigators who have laid out the significant work done by the oil companies and the original and credible scientific work they financed, before management decided to bury the facts.  What is also surprising is the growing body of committed people globally, experts in the legal and scientific fields, whose work is in ensuring that this information goes out to more people so that more informed action for those most vulnerable is undertaken and that responsibility and accountability are obtained.

The Commission is hearing three kinds of witnesses.  First are life stories of the most vulnerable people in the Philippines; what they experience and what they understand “climate change” to be. These stories express the urgency for people losing their livelihoods and environmental security.  Second is the scientific and social understanding of the weather events, impacts, and responses in the Philippines.  None of these reports in themselves are proof of climate change but are presented more as evidence of the vulnerability to extreme weather events and seasonal uncertainties.  Third is the scientific evidence, investigative documentation of corporate activities, accountability, and the growing science of attribution.  Corporations are invited to send their counsels and to make themselves known during the hearings but so far have remained without; meanwhile the hearings are livestreamed.

Local stories

During the last six months of the NICC hearings, local community representatives shared their experiences and vulnerability to climate change.  Three community consultations were conducted in Tacloban, the provinces that compose the Verde Island Passage (Batangas, Marinduque, Occidental Mindoro, Oriental Mindoro), and Cagayan de Oro – Bukidnon providing venues for people to talk about how rural life in particular has become more difficult. Another community dialogue will be conducted in Alabat, Quezon in October. Key informant interviews and focused group discussions were conducted in Ilagan (Isabela), Alabat (Quezon), Tacloban (Leyte), and Libon (Albay).

It is very clear that people are suffering from the variability and extremities of the changes.  Changes and uncertainties of planting seasons, extreme hot weather, increased pests and diseases and affected water resources, devastating typhoons and depressions with a record of nearly a meter of rainfall, and the possibility of a coming El Niño, are all part of the picture.

Community anecdotal evidence, stories of farmers, fisherfolk and informal urban settlers touch the hearts but can be easily dismissed as legally inadmissible given the lack of scientific verifiable evidence and analyses.  This is why climate change needs to be investigated as a human right: the right to health, water, food, livelihood, and security from violent storms.

If these shifts in weather patterns that translate to deaths, increased vulnerability and loss of basic needs are humanly induced, then they directly impact human rights.  The purpose of this inquiry is to establish the impact of such events on people locally (by extension globally) and to lay out the possible legal process by which admissible evidence can be established for justifiable action.

Philippine scientific data and understanding of weather events

Scientific data and analyses in the Philippines identify the challenges while the findings of the different critical analysts explain not only the scientific and legal challenges but also the difficulties of attribution.

Global scientific evidence and legal re-definitions for attribution

A process is solidifying where the responsibilities of the Carbon Majors for human rights violations or threats resulting from the impacts on climate are being defined in legal terms and this takes time to reconstruct.  Thus, it is regrettable that corporations so well-versed in atmospheric science and aerosol diffusion today bury their interests in extraction and in the art of diffusion and confusion. This growing body of scientific and legal processes have never been presented in the same context and with the same comprehensiveness. The Philippines is the first country to hear all of the different and connecting research and analyses that is consolidating the evidence as never before.

Where is the process leading us?

From this point there are two paths that can be taken. One is the investigation of the public record of these corporations in communicating their knowledge of climate warming and how it has changed while noting their exploitation of carbon resources.  The other is unpacking word for word the different sciences and predictive analysis that lead to attribution in terms of: 1) assessment, 2) foreseeable harm, 3) accountability, 4) attribution, and 5) risk and uncertainty that actuarial science can provide. These five areas are linking in a comprehensive manner the scientific and legal processes affecting the growing tide of litigation.

Understanding both these paths can lead to a questioning again of one’s basic scientific knowledge of the carbon cycle, why corporations are the focus of this inquiry, and the recent history of a known number (19 so far) of cases against corporations in the United States and a further 17 globally invoking human rights responsibilities of governments.

The pressure of climate change on poor communities is confirmed by global social development initiatives, affirmed by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that UN member states are asked to achieve by 2030.  Even as the planetary boundaries are spelled out and there is a call for a circular economy, there remains a need for a further level of action.

Corporate engagement in the process can much more quickly bring about change if it follows through on its own scientific findings and actively works for the “below 2 degrees C temperature rise” of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which will release in October 2018 a special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and related greenhouse gas emission pathways.  The IPCC was established in 1988 “to deliver comprehensive reviews on the scientific, technical and socio-economic state of knowledge of climate change, its causes, possible repercussions and response strategies.”

This NICC process has a global reach and is a sign of great hope.  It calls for greater listening and learning anew that there is a basis for action by all communities and societies. The hearings in New York (27-28 September) and in London (6, 7, and 8 November) with the legal associations show the interest and the need for extensive review.  Courts realize also their growing responsibilities as these actions are getting defined, not as political agendas, but as social responsibility and growing attribution.

We seek to share the work of the Commission and the interesting revelations along the way at the NICC portal of the Environmental Science for Social Change. The points presented above will be further discussed in succeeding articles.

Dr Pedro Walpole is a Technical Adviser to the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines for the NICC, providing technical inputs and recommendations that the Commission can review and consider in the conduct of the public hearings, in the discussions with the Amici Curiae, and in the development of the final report of the Commission. Dr Walpole has extensive experience in environmental work in the Philippines and in Asia Pacific and continues to engage with local and international discussions on the social and environmental impacts of a changing climate.

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