Preparing to withstand other extreme weather events

Lucille L. Sering
Climate changes may also increase the danger of war, because already scarce natural resources, including drinking water, will be under greater pressure

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) this week declared the start of summer, and for most of us this is generally good news. It means the end of regular classes, a long vacation due to the Holy Week, among other “sunny” things. In short, a much-needed break. The line from the song Summer Breeze by Seals and Croft – “summer breeze makes me feel fine” – aptly sums up the general sentiment about the season. Even writing this article gave me a smile due to the prospect of not worrying about floods for at least two months. Then some reality check.


I am here in Yokohama, Japan, to attend the 38th Session of the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is a scientific body under the auspices of the United Nations (UN). It reviews and assesses the most recent scientific, technical, and socio-economic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change. The IPCC is open to all member countries of the UN and World Meteorological Office (WMO). Governments participate in the review process and the plenary sessions, where main decisions about the IPCC work program are taken and reports are accepted, adopted, and approved.

The 38th session meeting started on March 25 and is scheduled to end on March 29. It is also the 10th Plenary of the IPCC Working Group 2, the group that produced the report that deals with impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. It is part two of the 4-part assessment of the IPCC. It will supersede the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) that was published 8 years ago.

The Philippine Climate Change Commission (CCC) is the lead policy making body on climate change-related programs as enunciated under Republic Act 9729 or the Climate Change Act of 2009. As part of the CCC, I have the privilege to be the first to see the draft of the scientific summary for policy makers and the opportunity to intervene in the language of the draft.

For those following climate change issues, these reports are considered the “bible” of climate change. With the growing global concern on climate change, interest in the latest available science have also heightened. The work of the IPCC is considered the most pertinent benchmark for climate action. It has significant influence on the negotiations in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Its previous work, the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), received the Nobel Prize in 2007. The IPCC shared the prize with Al Gore, former vice president of the United States of America. The Nobel Prize raised the integrity and level of confidence in the work of the IPCC as the foremost document on climate science. Thus, the release of the entire report is highly anticipated not only by the scientific community but also by governments and businesses with special interests.

By awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 to the IPCC and former US Vice President Al Gore Jr, the Norwegian Nobel Committee called special attention to their efforts to obtain and disseminate greater knowledge concerning man-made climate changes and the steps that need to be taken to counteract those changes.

According to the IPCC, there is a real danger that climate changes may also increase the danger of war and conflict, because they will place already scarce natural resources, not least drinking water, under greater pressure and put large population groups to flight from drought, flooding, and other extreme weather conditions.

For the Philippines, these ingredients of danger are already present. With an increasing population exposed to increasing intensity of typhoons during the last 5 years, even in areas not often visited by typhoons, the dangers are now becoming a reality. And we are only talking about typhoons. While it is true that most of the damages from natural disasters are water-related, we need to also understand the other extreme weather events, such as droughts. In the Philippines, drought events are associated with the El Niño phenomenon, whose frequency during the last decade has been increasing.

Unlike typhoons, whose strength can now be easily determined in terms of wind speed, rainfall, and pressure, droughts are difficult to ascertain. Even declaring an occurrence of a drought varies from region to region. A drought is generally taken to mean a situation of acute rainfall deficiency. Its potential impacts will be most apparent on water supply, especially for agriculture. El Niño events that brought significant damage in the agriculture sector occurred in the years 1972-73, 1982-83, 1986-87, 1997-98, 2002-2003, and 2010.

I initially struggled with the timing in raising this as a concern, especially after the signing of the Bangsamoro Peace Agreement. But being a Mindanaoan, I feel that the timing is right to take advantage of the enthusiasm of the prospect of real peace. Under the year 2020 scenarios of Pagasa, Mindanao will experience longer dry season starting from March to August.

The scenario is dimmer for year 2050. The provinces in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) will have the highest reduction of rainfall in terms of percentage from baseline. These scenarios are considered conservative because the ARMM is the least observed area in the Philippines in terms of weather and climate, not for lack of intention but mainly because of peace and order challenges.

Now that the promise of peace is about to be realized, we need to sustain it by addressing climate change, an issue considered by many as the greatest challenge of our time. Climate change may not have been mentioned under the agreement, but hopefully it will find its way in the law creating the Bangsamoro.

As I often say, climate change is not a disaster; it potentially can become one if we do not heed the warning offered by science. Being here in the IPCC meetings gives me the opportunity to see and appreciate the motivation behind the scientific report for policy makers. The report, despite being placed under scrutiny by government representatives, remains consistent with the overall finding that climate change is upon us. It enhances the need for urgent action from all corners of the world because no one will be exempted from the adverse impacts in a 4-degree temperature increase scenario.

A recent statement of the WMO cited that “many of the extreme events of 2013 were consistent with what we would expect as a result of human-induced climate change,” with emphasis on the heavier precipitation, more intense heat, and more damage from storm surges and coastal flooding as a result of sea level rise – as Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) so tragically demonstrated in the Philippines. The WMO also pointed to data from Australia’s drought, showing that the country’s record heat last year would have been “virtually impossible” without human emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

With all these, should we be alarmed? Yes, we should. Being alarmed has its merits because it motivates you to do something to address it. Complacency, on the other hand, breeds mediocrity and inaction. Projections based on sound science are actually giving us time and the opportunity not to panic. This is the real value of these scientific reports. It should not be feared. Instead, it should be welcomed.

Government resources were strained in 2013 alone after the 25 typhoons, with significant damage from typhoons Labuyo, Santi, and Yolanda, and the major earthquake in Bohol. Our overall level of preparedness was exposed, its flaws highlighted.

This is why the Climate Change Commission is strongly pushing for planning around vulnerabilities – not only plans and programs by the government but also by the private sector. All plans and programs must incorporate climate and weather information as part of managing risks, or, for businesses, as part of maximizing yield.

In the next few days, the climate change Cabinet cluster will be presenting to the President the roadmap covering the second half of his administration. It is heavy on investments in science that will help the country plan around vulnerabilities, including conducting the first ever climate exposure database.

The climate exposure database now includes exposure to increase in temperature, especially in production areas. The database will guide technical agencies, especially the National Disaster Risk Management Council, to focus preparedness not only on typhoons but also on slow onset events like droughts. Equally important is that the database will be most useful to businesses that rely on agriculture in their supply chain.

As we enjoy summer, it makes time pass by so fast. The threat of El Niño for this year remains low and is not expected to happen this summer, but the threat remains nonetheless. According to Pagasa, rainy season is expected to start mid-May or start of June. President Aquino already made instructions to relevant agencies to prepare for the rainy season. Some academic institution made a proactive stance by moving the opening of the school year to August. Weather might not be the main reason for the change, but I have long supported this call. In the first place, making up for classes due to weather-related suspension is not part of the curriculum design.

As we move forward from last year, addressing climate change and disaster should be more proactive and not merely reactive. Understanding the dominant role of water in the climate system is crucial to identifying vulnerabilities to the increase in volume of water and also to the lack of it. While we know what is forthcoming on weather, preparedness means not just preparing to respond but, now more than ever, preparing to withstand. –

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