Image courtesy of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer

The impact of human (and industrial) activity on the environment has been at the core of debates among environmentalists for a long time, but it has also started gaining projection within the human rights space. Last month, for example, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet gave a speech in Washington, DC, where she stressed the threats to human rights posed by climate change: “From increased poverty and food insecurity, to growing water stress and accelerated environmental damage, it is a clear and increasingly present threat to human dignity, and to the gains that have been made in building up inclusive and sustainable development.”

It is well documented that certain activities, such as the burning of fossil fuel, contribute to global warming. This is not a recent discovery. Companies have known for decades that exploring oil, coal, and natural gas causes global warming, but —instead of acting on it— they did their best to deceive the general public. Though this disinformation campaign started years ago, it continues to this day, including the funding of so-called climate skeptics in politics. It is worth remembering that the strategy of denying the risks of certain products, despite factoring them in decision-making, is not unique to the fossil fuel industry. Tobacco companies did exactly the same decades go, as did Purdue Pharma with OxyContin more recently.

Globe made of handprintsWhile some companies try hard to cast doubt on climate change, others end up benefitting from this phenomenon. The soda industry, for example, has been accused of causing a major water shortage in Chiapas, Mexico, where a factory is located. In response, Coca-Cola has been saying that the company is being unfairly maligned for this problem, blaming instead rapid urbanization and poor planning. Climate change has also come up as one of the causes of the failure of artisan wells, according to a scientist from the region. This finger-pointing has been going on for a while. In the meantime, the local population suffers with the lack of drinking water and has to deal with an alarming epidemic of diabetes.

Regardless of the evidence in each of these cases individually, it is interesting to highlight how the discourse around climate change can be used to shield companies from their responsibilities. In some cases, the existence of climate change is called into question in order to release companies from their legal obligations. In other cases, the existence of climate change helps generate doubt about the impact of certain activities on the environment overall. It is past the time for climate change to start being accepted for the fact that it is. Likewise, it is urgent that companies understand that —if anything— climate change raises the bar in terms of what is expected of them, whether they contributed to this phenomenon or not.

In this sense, it is worth remembering that, as the UN Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment recently recalled, the interdependence between human rights and the environment has become undeniable. Therefore, it is necessary to consider this type of situation under a business and human rights framework, including the obligation to act with due diligence. This means that it is not enough to do the absolute minimum. Instead, it is necessary to identify and assess the risks to human rights by geographic context, industry sector and business relationships, both in relation to the company’s own activities and the value chain.

The focus must be on the prevention (and, if necessary, the redressing) of damage to the environment and —inextricably— to human beings.