The business and human rights dimensions of climate change

Speech to the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, Geneva, 27 November 2019

Brynn O'Brien
Nov 27, 2019 · 5 min read

It is 3pm on the final day of the ninth annual UN forum on business and human rights in 2019 and we are finally having this conversation.

On Monday, the World Meteorological Organisation released new data confirming that we are at 407.8 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere. The ‘safe’ limit is 350 ppm, a threshold we crossed at some point in the late 1980s. The continued buildup of carbon dioxide due to human activities, primarily the extraction and burning of fossil fuels for energy, is driving global temperatures up, with harmful impacts worldwide.

But those activities are not slowing down, much less declining.

My home country, Australia, has been on fire for a month. I acknowledge that there are many countries and communities facing immediate climate harms, especially in the Global South. But let me talk about Australia, where in the last month, six people have died in bushfires, six hundred homes have been destroyed, and roughly two million hectares of land on the east coast has been burned. Wildlife experts have told us that this means that koalas are now severely under threat of extinction. The Great Barrier Reef is, very likely, in a state of terminal decline.

Despite all this, Australia does not have a national policy to reduce emissions. It remains the world’s largest exporter of thermal coal and of LNG. We are on the edge of opening up the Southern Hemisphere’s largest thermal coal mine – an entirely new reserve in the Galilee basin in Queensland. The oil and gas industry is booming. The rights of First Nations peoples are routinely denied, and in the case of the Galilee basin, extinguished to make way for new fossil fuels developments. Civil society organisations that work on climate issues, including my own, are being directly threatened by a Prime Minister in the thrall of the fossil fuels industry. The Australian defence force has recently conducted training drills, using tanks and machine guns, so that they are prepared to defend coal fired power stations from disruption.

100 companies are responsible for roughly 70% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions since 1988. Based on my recollection of attendees at previous forums, I estimate that companies represented here are responsible for 15–20% of those emissions. Add to that states responsible for state owned enterprises that extract fossil fuels and you have double or triple that proportion.

The business model of companies which extract fossil fuels from the ground for combustion is fundamentally incompatible with the responsibility to respect human rights. No major fossil fuels company currently meets the criteria for a transition that would credibly seek to prevent or mitigate human rights harms.

The equation is quite easy, but very disturbing. Climate change makes more places than ever, around the world, uninhabitable. For example, when people live somewhere food can’t be grown because it is either much wetter or much drier than before, or a place by a river that floods and never fully recedes, people need to move. The movement of people due to climate change is predicted to be on a scale we have never seen before. In this room, we all know that millions of people on the move at the same time, with companies poised to profit from incarceration and exclusion, is a recipe for a human rights disaster. And let me repeat: we are talking about people seeking dignity and safety on the move at a scale we have never seen before. Due to climate harms. Due to emissions. That is the link between human rights and climate.

Exploring for new fossil fuels in 2019 is fundamentally incompatible with human rights. The extraction and burning of proven coal, oil and gas reserves would blow our global carbon budget several times over.

And yet, just yesterday, we listened to a globally significant oil company tell an uncritical audience how robust their human rights due diligence process is. Last night, we endured a reception hosted by Australia and Norway, two governments which enable, through regulation and subsidies favourable to fossil fuels interests, massive climate related harms.

But it is not just fossil fuels companies and governments. Every major bank in the world still lends money to fossil fuels exploration. Every global law firm represented here still facilitates expansion of the fossil fuels industry. Every global engineering services provider. Most major investment institutions. Each of the big four accounting and auditing practices. Every significant management consultancy. Those parts of your business that facilitate fossil fuels exploration and expansion are incompatible with your own responsibility to respect human rights. I appeal to you to stop.

But it gets worse. Every civil society organisation that partners with these organisations, that loans their logo to green or blue-washing efforts. Every cultural institution that takes money from the fossil fuels industry in exchange for branding rights. Every company that sits in a trade association that lobbies against climate policy in order to protect the interests of a handful of its members. Every business coalition and compact and set of indicators that counts fossil fuels companies among its constituency without demanding a coherent transition plan. Every single one of these actors is complicit in climate harm.

If you feel uncomfortable, good. Sit with that discomfort. Do not talk about being ‘constructive,’ about ‘respectful’ debate, about ‘safe spaces for business.’ There is nothing to talk about until companies that are responsible for this mess have clear plans, based in science, to radically alter their business models and aggressively reduce emissions.

Emissions reduction is a core human rights demand and every advocate in this room must start making it.

I acknowledge the work of climate scientists, the resistance of communities, disproportionately poor communities and communities of colour on the front lines of this unfolding disaster, of Pacific Islands nations and Torres Strait Islanders and of First Nations people around the world who are facing devastating and near-term loss of culture and land, I acknowledge our friends in the environmental movement who have already fought so hard. The business and human rights community has let you down.

I am told that the theme for next year’s forum has already been decided, and that it is corruption. That is not good enough. If next year’s theme is not carbon, this forum will fade into irrelevance, but far worse than that, this community will have failed. Failed in our responsibility, at time of escalating and increasingly obvious harm, to do our bit to build momentum to protect, respect, remedy.

Every single one of us is on a collision course with both atmospheric physics and history. This is not someone else’s problem. This is our problem. And we must not waste another year.

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