Philippines Human Rights Commission delivers landmark decision, opening the door to hold the Carbon Majors accountable for climate damages

The Human Rights Commission of the Philippines has concluded its three-year investigation of a complaint led by Greenpeace South-East Asia , and has found that the collective contribution to global heating by 47 coal, cement, and oil and gas companies has violated Filipinos’ basic human rights to life, water, food, sanitation, adequate housing and self-determination. Although the full decision is not yet available – but promised by the end of 2019 – the announcement made by one of the Commissioners at the COP25 meetings  stated that it would be up to individual countries to pass strong legislation and establish legal liability in their own courts, but that “there was clear scope under existing civil law in the Philippines to take action.”

The  Director of Greenpeace Philippines is quoted in the Greenpeace press release:

“The findings are a landmark victory for communities around the world who are at the frontlines of the climate emergency. This is the first ever finding of corporate responsibility for human rights harms resulting from the climate crisis. The outcome goes beyond the Philippines and can reach every single human being alive or yet to be born. However, this is only the beginning. We believe the findings provide very strong basis not just for future legal actions against big polluters, but also for citizens and communities to confront inaction by companies and governments in the streets and in the hallways of power.”

Greenpeace maintains an archive of documents related to this long-running investigation, including corporate responses and expert opinions.  Climate Liability News has published a number of articles, including “Carbon Majors Can Be Held Liable for Human Rights Violations, Philippines Commission Rules” and  “Philippines Climate Case Could Find Fossil Fuel Companies Violate Human Rights” ( 2017), which  provides more background to the case.

Rights-in-a-Changing-ClimateRelated: An authoritative chronicling of  the human rights dimension in UNFCCC decisions and the Paris Agreement appears in  Rights in a Changing Climate by the Centre for International Environmental Law , published on December 5. It includes examples of Just Transition and decent work. The CIEL also operates a Working Group on Climate Rights, with a dedicated website here.

Updates on climate litigation:

“Fossil Fuels on Trial: Where the Major Climate Change Lawsuits Stand Today”  was published by Inside Climate News on November 29, providing a good sum-up of the year, but too early to reflect the landmark Philippines decision, nor the December 10 decision in the suit by the New York Attorney General against  Exxon.  The surprising victory for Exxon is described in  “Judge Clears Exxon in Investor Fraud Case Over Climate Risk Disclosure”  in Inside Climate News, as well as in a New York Times article.

66 recommendations from Special Advisor in investigation of Ontario’s 2019 record-setting floods

Disastrous and record-setting flooding occurred across the province of Ontario between April and July 2019, with 23 municipalities declaring states of emergencies.  In July 2019, the government appointed Doug McNeil, an experienced public servant from Manitoba, as Special Advisor on Flooding , with a mandate to consider the flood management and land use systems in Ontario.  His report was submitted to the government on October 31 and made public on November 28 – the press release is here. flooding firefighterThe 157-page  Report of an Independent review of the 2019 flood events in Ontario describes in detail the complex administrative and regulatory system which governs the province’s flood management , and  concludes that “the government and its partners were effective at reducing and mitigating flood risks…. the flooding was caused by a combination of weather conditions and found no human error or negligence in the operation  of “water control structures” (translation: dams).

Reaction to the report includes “Doug Ford government ducks fiscal responsibility for severe flooding” in the National Observer  (November 28) – which points out: “The first Ford budget had slashed by 50 per cent the flood management funds given to conservation authorities by his ministry to protect Ontario’s watersheds and canceled tree-planting efforts that limit flood damage.”  A Toronto Globe and Mail article focuses on the home-owners perspective in their overview “Ontario homes at risk of flooding should be made public: report”The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority reacted positively– their press release notes that many of their recommendations and comments about urban flooding were incorporated in the Special Advisor’s recommendations.  It is notable that the Chair of the TRCA was appointed on the same day as a member of Ontario’s new Advisory Panel on Climate Change.

The Special Advisor makes sixty-six recommendations for improved action and coordination by the provincial ministries and conservation authorities, and calls for sustained funding for  budgets related to flood management .  Recommendations include:

  • #3: “That the following be incorporated into the Provincial Policy Statement: • The reference to “impacts of a changing climate” throughout the Provincial Policy Statement helps to bring it to everyone’s attention and should be included in the Preamble as well.”
  • #15: That the Province consider adopting legislation that will require flood risk properties to be identified in some way that is publicly accessible, at the very least on the property title, to ensure that prospective buyers are aware.
  • #16 That municipalities consider utilizing local improvement charges to help finance and install (or upgrade) shoreline protection works, and if necessary, that the Province provide municipalities with enhanced authority to do so.
  • #52: That the Province continue the dialogue with the Insurance Bureau of Canada and the federal government on the steps needed to make flood insurance more available to more Ontarians.
  • #66: That the Province maintain, at a minimum, the current level of funding in departmental budgets and programs related to everything flood (i.e. existing approval processes and associated policies and technical requirements, floodplain mapping, maintenance of flood infrastructure, satellite imagery, etc.).

Workers who respond to wildfires – some news you might have missed

The Columbia Journalism Review published an article on November 1: “What journalists miss when covering the California fires” . It states “we discuss celebrities and show pyro-pornography to capture attention. …. journalists could also use the borrowed interest to discuss bigger environmental consequences impacting people inside (and sometimes outside) of California.”

firefight in smokeHere are some articles which  focus on the impacts for working people in California and Canada, especially first responders and health care workers.  A previous WCR article,  “What happens to workers when wildfires and natural disasters hit?”  appeared in December 2017, after the Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta.

California:

At PG&E, a workforce on edge — and under attack — as fire season arrives” in the San Francisco Chronicle (June 8) describes how front line workers are suffering harassment because the public blames their employer, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, for the 2018 Camp fire, as well as for the disruptions of their planned power outages to avoid sparking more fires.

A blog post  Power Shutoffs: Playing with Fire summarizes the issue of California power shutoffs and includes anecdotal reports from a  focus group study of home health care and nursing home workers, which  found that lack of communication was a common problem as they try to care for or evacuate their vulnerable patients.  The focus group was convened by the Emerald Cities Collaborative and SEUI2015.

Home healthcare in the Dark : Why Climate, Wildfires and Other Emerging Risks Call for Resilient Energy Storage Solutions to Protect Medically Vulnerable Households from Power Outages. This report published by Clean Energy Group and Meridian Institute in June 2019  identifies the problems associated with unreliable power when the electric grid goes down either through disaster or through  planned power outages to prevent wildfires. The report  makes a series of recommendations directed at policy makers, including:  “truly resilient power should be generated onsite, should not be dependent on supply chains that may be disrupted during catastrophic events”.

Getty fire: Housekeepers and gardeners go to work despite the flames” in the LA Times which also highlights the chaos brought by lack of communication, and the need for low-wage workers to work, despite danger.

International Association of Firefighters press release “California Members Work around the Clock to Contain Wildfires” provides an overview of  wildfire fighting by their members and points out that firefighters’ homes may also be in the path of destruction. (a fact that is true for other essential workers such as  health care workers).

“As fires rage, California refines an important skill: Evacuating” in the Washington Post (Oct. 29).  Describes the challenges of first responders responsible for vulnerable patients in hospitals.

New threats put wildfire fighters health on the line”  in the New York Times points out : “While burning wood poses some threat to lungs, man-made products and the gases and particles they produce when burned are far more dangerous…Unlike urban firefighters dealing with structural blazes, these wildfire responders do not wear heavy gear that filters air or provides clean air because the gear is unwieldy and too limited to allow the kind of multi-hour, high-exertion efforts demanded on the front lines of these large outdoor infernos.”

And from 2017, “Suicide rate among wildland firefighters is “astronomical”” in Wildfire Today  , based on a more substantial article in The Atlantic: “A Quiet Rise in Wildland-Firefighter Suicides”

 

Canada:

Climate change is making wildfires in Canada bigger, hotter and more dangerous”  in Maclean’s (July 18 2019) is a quick overview of the Canadian experience.

We were blindsided: Rappel firefighters criticizes UCP for axing program  in the Edmonton Journal  (Nov. 7) and an article in the newspaper Fort McMurray Today react to the Alberta government cuts which will eliminate the 40-year-old rappelling program, which employs more than 60 firefighters who rappel from helicopters into forest fires. Staffing for close to 30 wildfire lookout towers and one air tanker unit will also be cut. The articles describe the dangerous job of fighting fires.

A  British Columbia government press release at the end of October 2019 announces two research projects underway to study  firefighter health and wellness (including its physical, mental and emotional dimensions).  One at the University of Northern B.C. is a scoping study to contribute to a long-term research strategy for worker health by the B.C. Wildfire Service. The second, supported by the government of Alberta,  is examining the nature and concentration of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the air that firefighters breathe and accumulate on their skin. This study will also “explore the practicality and effectiveness of firefighters using respiratory protective equipment; and investigate whether wildland firefighters have more chronic lung disease than other people of the same age, gender and geographic location.” A progress report on the initial phase of this project is expected in March 2020.

“Fire-weary Western Canadians are picking up stakes and moving on” in the National Observer (June 24  2019)considers the impact of smoke as well as fire over the past two years in the West, discussing how “residents … young and old, often on fixed or limited incomes, are making tough choices about where they want to live and to work. The decisions are being informed by many factors, but often the most pressing concern is the increasing frequency of forest fires.”  (This updates some of the themes of a 2017 Globe and Mail article “Fort MacMurray wildfires leaves livelihoods in limbo” ).

Unions have made consistent and significant donations to wildfire-affected communities.  Some examples: “Steelworkers Humanity Fund Contributes $69,000 to Fort McMurray Recovery” (2016); “Steelworkers Contribute $100,000 to B.C. Fire Relief” (August 2017),  and Steelworkers Humanity Fund Contributes $58,950 to Support Disaster Recovery Here and Abroad (June 2019) –  which specifies a $10,000  donation to the  High Level Native Friendship Centre food bank in Northern Alberta after  forest fires caused  the evacuation of the town.  Also,  “Unifor wildfire relief donations top $220k” in 2017, and  a 2018 press release announced $150,000 to the B.C. Fire Relief Fund of the Canadian Red Cross in 2018 through Unifor’s Canadian Community Fund  as well as its Social Justice Fund .

Recognition of the mental health impacts of flooding and wildfires in Canada – B.C. offers support

A June 2018 report from the Intact Centre for Climate Adaptation  at the University of Waterloo presents statistics about the rising financial costs of weather-related disasters in Canada, and  profiles the results of 100 door-to-door interviews with households in flooded communities around Burlington Ontario. After the Flood: The Impact of Climate on Mental Health and Lost Time From Work   found that members of households which had been flooded experienced significantly more worry and stress than non-flooded households, and the worry and stress persisted even up to 3 years after the event. After the Flood also reported that 56% of flooded households had at least one working member who took time off work, and that the average time lost was seven days per flooded household (10 times greater than the average absenteeism for non-flooded workers).

The report cites official documents concerning the growing financial costs of disasters for example, the 2016 report from Canada’s Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer ,  Estimates of the Average Annual Cost for Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements due to Weather Events and includes a bibliography of the growing  international public health literature concerning the health effects of weather disasters.

talk in tough times logoOther official recognition of the rising dangers of extreme weather events:  in May 2018, the Province of British Columbia, under the leadership of Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, announced mental health support services for those who might be impacted by re-living their experiences from the record-breaking 2017 wildfire season.   In partnership with the B.C. branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, the program directs people to support services through a Facebook campaign called Talk in Tough Times, and a phone-based support program.

Federally, the  Minister of Infrastructure and Communities announced the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund in May 2018, a 10-year national program that will invest $2 billion in infrastructure projects such as diversion channels, wetland restorations, wildfire barriers and setback levees, to help communities better withstand natural hazards such as floods, wildfires, seismic events and droughts.

What happens to workers when wildfires and natural disasters hit?

Sadly, we are becoming  used to seeing headlines about the costs of fighting climate change-related wildfires, hurricanes, and floods – most recently, the record wildfire season of 2017.   These news reports usually discuss loss  in terms of the value of  insurance  claims – for example, “Northern Alberta Wildfire Costliest Insured Natural Disaster in Canadian History – Estimate of insured losses: $3.58 billion”   from the Insurance Bureau of Canada, or in terms of the budgets of emergency service agencies – for example, “Cost of fighting U.S. wildfires topped $2 billion in 2017” from Reuters (Sept. 14), or in terms of health and mental health effects – for example, “Economic analysis of health effects from forest fires”  in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research (2006).  “The Science behind B.C.’s Forest Fires” (December 5) post by West Coast Environmental Law discusses the links to climate change, and concludes that the record wildfires of 2017 foreshadow growing economic and  human costs in the future.

When employment effects of disasters are reported, it is usually by statistical agencies interested in working days lost or unemployment effects,  for example,  “Wildfires in northern Alberta: Impact on hours worked, May and June, 2016”  from Statistics Canada, or “Hurricane Katrina’s effects on industry employment and wages ” from the Bureau of Labor Statistics ( 2006) . While all these are important, Hurricane Katrina taught that there are also other aspects, including those of environmental and economic justice.

Hurricane Harvey survey coverOne recent example which illustrates recurring patterns: on December 5, the  Kaiser Family Foundation and the Episcopal Health Foundation in Texas released the results of a survey about the impacts of Hurricane Harvey . While most of the survey reports on  the loss of homes and cars,  it also measures employment impacts:  46%  of respondents reported that  they or someone else in their household lost job-related income as a result of the storm – through  fewer hours at work (32%), losing a job entirely (12%) or losing income from a small business or unpaid missed days (32%). And as so often is the case, income disruptions affected a greater share of Hispanic (65%) and Black (46%) residents compared to White residents (31%).

Two recent news reports highlight a more surprising story of the California wildfires:   “California Is Running Out of Inmates to Fight Its Fires” in The Atlantic (Dec. 7 2017)  and “Incarcerated women risk their lives fighting California fires. It’s part of a long history of prison labor”  (Oct. 22, 2017) . These articles describe the long-standing practice in California of using prison inmates as firefighters: in the current season,  almost 3,000 of the 9,000 firefighters battling wildfires are inmates, who get a few dollars plus two days off their sentences for each day spent fighting wildfires.

fort_mcmurray-fireThe Fort MacMurray wildfires in northern Alberta in 2016 rank as the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history, exceeding the previous record, which was the 2013 flooding in Calgary and southern Alberta.  That ranking is based on the  estimate by the Insurance Bureau of Canada   of $3.58 billion;  the Conference Board of Canada also reported on the economic impacts  (free; registration required).   Statistics Canada measured work days lost and employment insurance claims through their Labour Force Survey instrument, and so were able to differentiate effects by sector, sex and age, as location, in two reports:  Wildfires in northern Alberta: Impact on hours worked, May and June, 2016  (November 2016)  and “Wildfires in northern Alberta affected hours and Employment Insurance beneficiaries”, a section in the Annual Review of the Labour Market, 2016 .

Another assessment of the total financial impact of the  Fort McMurray wildfire estimated the financial impact of the Fort MacMurray fire was $9.9 billion, as reported by the  CBC (January 2017) and the  Toronto Star (January 17).  That research, by two economists from MacEwan University in Edmonton,  was commissioned by the  Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction  , but does not appear to have been published as of December 2017.  Their estimates included  indirect impacts such as the expense of replacing buildings and infrastructure, lost income, and lost profits and royalties in the oilsands and forestry industries.  And they estimate the mental health impacts and  cost of suffering of the firefighters as $3.78 million.

Excellent news reports also described the employment situation – including the government and union support for workers : “ Fort MacMurray wildfires leaves livelihoods in limbo”   in the Globe and Mail  (updated March 2017); “Fort MacMurray smoke halts major oilsands project”  in the National Observer (May 7 2016),  “ Fort McMurray firefighters who slew ‘The Beast’ now battling emotional demons” from CBC News (July 3 2016) ,  and “Resilient but tired: Mental effects of wildfire lingering in Fort McMurray” in The National Observer (Dec. 18 2017).

An Employment Fact Sheet  from  ProBono Law website  answers FAQ’s regarding workers’ rights in Alberta as of May 2016 – such questions as: .  “If business operations are badly affected and an employer has no work for some or all employees, does the employer have to pay them …?” (No); “An employee’s home was badly affected by the fire. Are they entitled to paid or unpaid leave to sort out the personal problems caused by the fire?” (No, employees are not entitled , but some employers do offer such leaves as part of their benefit plans or will offer them if asked.) Future recourse regarding leave provisions may be available as of January 2018, when the Alberta Employment Standards Code is amended to provide new Personal and Family Responsibility Leave of  up to 5 days of job protection per year for personal sickness or short-term care of an immediate family member, which includes attending to personal emergencies.   And failing that, there is always the hope, as described in the Toronto Star, that “Workplaces are adapting to climate change by offering paid extreme weather leave”  (November 14).