Filipino typhoon survivor on why he joined transnational climate case against French oil major TotalEnergies

The latest lawsuit against the oil giant is believed to be the first-ever complaint filed by individuals and its list of plaintiffs includes Frank Marba, a young Filipino. They are mainly climate survivors from disaster-prone countries.

Dinagat Islands
The coastal community of Barangay Melgar holding a banner that reads “Make Climate Polluters Pay” in the town of Basilisa, Dinagat Islands, Philippines. Image: Erwin Mascariñas/ Greenpeace

Twenty-nine-year-old Frank Marba is used to typhoons hitting the coastal town of Dinagat Islands where he lives.

The islands are located in the Caraga region of the Philippines, one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. In the village where Marba grew up in, otherwise known as Barangay Melgar, residents have weathered countless tropical cyclones, including deadly ones like Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. 

But it wasn’t until Typhoon Rai in 2021, known in the Philippines as Super Typhoon Odette, that people started paying attention to how the storms were likely brought about by human activity, Marba told Eco-Business. The typhoon which had raged on for more than four hours – much longer than the one-hour duration that most typhoons last for – destroyed most houses and buildings in the community and also raised awareness on the link between climate change and extreme weather. 

“We have always thought that storms are part of nature and there is nothing we can do about it,” Marba said. “But after Typhoon Rai, we were educated by environmentalists who explained attribution science. It made me realise these storms can be because of human activities.

Frank Marba

Frank Marba is one of the survivors of super typhoon Rai, which made landfall in the Philippines in December 2021. Image: Erwin Mascariñas / Greenpeace

That realisation is what has convinced Marba to join victims of climate-related disasters from around the world to bring a criminal complaint against French oil giant TotalEnergies and its top shareholders in Paris courts this month. Filed on 21 May, the legal action is targeted at getting the carbon major to account for its alleged contribution to climate change and how that has impacted human and non-human lives.

There are a total of eight plaintiffs and three non-governmental organisations involved, including Marba, as well as survivors from Pakistan, Zimbabwe, France, Belgium, Greece and Australia, French non-profits BLOOM, Santé Planétaire and Mexican non-profit Nuestro Futuro. 

The complaint was filed just three days before TotalEnergies’ annual general meeting, and reflects momentum in Asia to get company board representatives and shareholders to take responsibility for the key decisions they make that would impact the environment and livelihoods. The plaintiffs also believe it to be the first such criminal case filed against the individuals running a major oil company. 

We have always thought that storms are part of nature and there is nothing we can do about it. But after Typhoon Rai, we were educated by environmentalists who explained attribution science. It made me realise these storms can be because of human activities.

Frank Marba, Filipino complainant against TotalEnergies 

The case aims to establish the alleged criminal liability of TotalEnergies’ directors and its major shareholders for deliberately endangering the lives of others, involuntary manslaughter, neglecting to address a disaster, and damaging biodiversity. Such crimes, if proven, are punishable by imprisonment and fines. The public prosecutor who received the file has three months to decide whether to open a judicial investigation or dismiss the complaint.

Marba said that he believed victims of climate-driven disasters “should not stay silent anymore”. 

When asked why the case singles out TotalEnergies, BLOOM said that the primary consideration was the chances of winning the lawsuit. 

“While we are advocating for all oil carbon majors especially those based in the United States and the United Kingdom to be responsible, we may be able to prove the liability of a French carbon major more easily since the case is filed in France,” explained Hadrienne Goux, fossil fuel campaign officer of BLOOM, who added that the organisation hoped to bring about a “domino effect” such that other carbon majors can be taken to task in their own jurisdictions too. 

TotalEnergies is ranked as the eighth biggest carbon emitter worldwide, based on a 2023 report by non-profit One Earth.

It has also become the world’s second-largest company in terms of planned expansion of fossil fuel extraction, at 4.5 billion barrels. This is not aligned with the International Energy Agency (IEA)’s roadmap to keep a warming limit of 1.5°C within reach. 

The plaintiffs say Total has announced the development of numerous new oil and gas projects since 2021 and continues to explore for more. They claim Total’s directors and shareholders made this choice to maximise profits.

The company has so far not responded to related media queries. 

Such cases show how climate litigation is evolving today, said Grizelda Mayo-Anda, executive director of non-profit Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC) which provides free legal advice for marginalised communities in the Philippines.

Speaking to the media at the press briefing on the transnational case, she cited how individuals have been filing similar climate action lawsuits against other carbon majors like Shell, Halliburton and Exxon Mobil Corp. in the past few years. 

The environmental lawyer highlighted how the Philippine Commission on Human Rights (CHR) landmark national inquiry on climate change revealed in a report in 2022 that there are legal grounds to hold climate-destroying corporations, known as carbon majors, liable for climate disasters.

Although the resolution was not legally-binding, it was considered by experts as an important precedent for other developing counties to follow and could have moral, political and potentially legal value in ensuring accountability from polluters.

“During the enquiry, CHR said that now is the time for exacting accountability from carbon majors. But to do that is hard because these fossil fuel companies are from all over the world,” said Mayo-anda.

“For the latest lawsuit, there might be is no absolute certainty for victory”, she said, but it is “very gratifying” to see that there are individuals and organisations trying to build a strong case to test if attribution science can fill the evidence gap for global courts.


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