UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Reimagining responsibility : how human rights due diligence practices could inform judicial responses to climate accountability litigation Higham, Catherine


Climate Change has been described as the greatest human rights issue of our time. As communities around the world struggle to adapt to life in a warming world, a growing movement has started to call for those who have contributed most to the climate problem – a small handful of major fossil fuel and cement companies now known as the Carbon Majors – to be held responsible for their “fair share” of the costs of climate adaptation. This movement has already resulted in litigation being brought against fossil fuel producers in common law courts. To date, these actions have been unsuccessful. However, I argue that the new norms around corporate responsibility contained in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) could help plaintiffs to change that outcome. Relying on rights-based theories of tort law, I argue that the norms in the UNGPs could help plaintiffs to establish the existence of a duty of care on the part of the Carbon Majors. After reviewing close to 200 corporate documents and statements, I conclude that the Carbon Majors’ public statements suggest a widespread acceptance of the responsibility to respect human rights contained in the UNGPs, and a widespread acceptance of the serious risks posed by climate change. A number of recent cases have seen common law courts demonstrate a new willingness to hold corporate actors accountable to the standards they claim to uphold in their corporate social responsibility reports. Relying on these recent precedents, plaintiffs could rely on the evidence reviewed for this thesis to establish that Carbon Majors have assumed a responsibility to prevent, mitigate, or remediate impacts to their human rights caused by climate change.

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