When I decided to embark with others on a 1500 km, 60-day pilgrimage from Rome to Paris, culminating at the COP21 climate talks in 2015, the urgency I felt wasn’t just scientific or political, it was also very personal. After so many failed negotiations, this was our chance to make a strong statement that world leaders needed to hear: we need action on climate change and we need it now.
Yeb Sano (front) during his People’s Pilgrimage in 2015.
The pilgrimage actually reaches further back than 60 days, back to November 2013. As the Climate Change Commissioner for the Philippines then, I made an impassioned speech in front of hundreds of dignitaries from 190 countries at the UN Climate Summit in Warsaw, Poland.
As I delivered my intervention about the threat of climate change to communities, I broke down…but with good reason. Typhoon Haiyan was ripping through the Philippines, tearing through communities and cities, killing at least 10,000 people, displacing millions, and leaving the country in an emotional black hole. Images of dead bodies were seared in my mind, and it was all too personal. I had feared that my brother was among the fallen. Thankfully, he survived, and during the People’s Pilgrimage in 2015, he walked with me – a reminder of how easily I could have lost him to an extreme weather event. Every step we took was a prayer for the friends and loved ones we had lost.
We are already experiencing climate change impacts including sea-level rise, hotter temperatures, extreme weather events and changes in precipitation. These in turn, result in human rights impacts, such as loss of homes and livelihoods, water contamination, food scarcity, displacement of whole communities, disease outbreaks, and even the loss of life. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “there is now an overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is indeed happening and humans are contributing to it.” The dire threats posed to the Philippines are well documented.
Experts have also demonstrated the central role that fossil fuel companies have played in locking society into the use of fossil fuels and undermining climate action. It is shocking to think that, as far back as 40 years ago, ExxonMobil already knew from research done by their own scientists, that burning fossil fuels could worsen climate change. Their reaction? Some oil companies ran an expensive disinformation campaign, mimicking the playbook employed by the tobacco industry to confuse the public over harm from smoking. Now, they are under investigation by at least two US attorneys general for this massive climate denial campaign.
A family takes refuge in Tacloban City, Philippines, the place that was most severely impacted by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
But there is hope. People around the world are rising up to demand protection of the land they live on, the air they breathe, the water they drink. Demanding their human right to a stable climate and healthy environment, because people cannot and will not accept these threats. Action is being taken now to protect themselves, their families and communities, giving us all the chance of a better future.
In the Philippines, I joined disaster survivors, community groups, and Greenpeace Philippines to successfully petition the Human Rights Commission to launch an investigation into the responsibility of fossil fuel companies for human rights impacts of climate change. Despite the growing number of human rights issues that continue to plague the country, the Commission nevertheless sees the utmost urgency and has announced that it will move forward with this first-ever national inquiry.
Protestors march the streets holding a banner reading, “Hold the Big Polluters Accountable” in Quezon City, Philippines. They are calling for an investigation into the responsibility of big fossil fuel companies for fueling catastrophic climate change that is resulting in human rights violations.
Our efforts in the Philippines are part of a global chorus of climate-related legal efforts. Swiss grannies, youth groups in the U.S. and Norway, Indigenous Peoples in Canada, Dutch citizens, allied organizations and Greenpeace supporters – these are just some of the courageous people taking action to defend human rights in this era of climate crisis. These actions give us hope that humanity will be able to live up to the commitments made in the Paris Agreement by limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C and keeping fossil fuels in the ground.
The KlimaSeniorinnen (Senior Women for Climate Protection) have made a legal challenge to the Swiss Government’s climate policies, highlighting shortfalls that are putting their lives and future generations at risk.
Anna Abad, a good friend and climate justice campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, has been relentlessly advocating that the “Big Polluters” be held accountable, and has presented the tough choice before us, thus:
Do we leave our world of 7.4 billion people – almost half of whom live on less than US $2.50 a day – in the hands of Big Polluters who only want to safeguard their profits and maintain business as usual, while their operations continue to drive climate change and impact the lives of hundreds of millions of people globally?
Do we leave our world in the hands of negligent governments that are failing to protect their citizens from the impacts of climate change?
Or, do we rise above with those seeking climate justice; with those holding the Big Polluters accountable for the harm they have contributed; with those holding their governments accountable for failing to protect their citizens; and with those demanding change, to protect and safeguard their and our human rights to a stable climate and healthy environment?
We need to make the choice now, because as long as climate change exists, every day needs to be human rights day.
Join the growing movement of climate defenders! Take action and #RiseAbove with those demanding protection of our rights to a stable climate and healthy environment.