After series of disasters, environmental activists call on gov't to declare climate emergency

Besides the COVID-19 pandemic, extreme weather events are leaving the Philippines reeling.

The country has been hit by a series of disasters in the past few months, including Super Typhoon Rolly (Goni), the strongest tropical cyclone in 2020, to flash foods in Negros Occidental in January 2021.

This onslaught of extreme disasters prompted environmental activists to call for a nationwide climate emergency, which they've been fighting for years. 

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace Philippines asserted that the declaration of a climate emergency in the country is needed more than ever, as many Filipinos feel the harsh impacts of climate change.

The declaration, on the part of the government, is important because it will acknowledge that urgent national action and resources are needed to help curb climate change. It can also result in the government putting climate response at the center of policy-making, Greenpeace Philippines said.

As of December 2020, the Climate Emergency Declaration and Mobilisation In Action has estimated that 1,865 jurisdictions in 33 countries have declared a climate emergency. Of this number, only 3 jurisdictions are in the Philippines

The Philippines, in particular, has long felt the brunt of climate change, even weathering through a series of devastating tropical cyclones in November 2020 that washed away homes in Bicol and parts of Luzon.

Grace Butial, 37, a resident of Sitio Bitaogan in Catanduanes, said that Rolly destroyed their entire house and the boat that her husband used for his work as a fisherman. Located east of Bicol, Catanduanes is one of the most badly-hit areas of the super typhoon, with over 15,000 families adversely affected.

Months after the devastation, Butial and her family of 8 children are still struggling from the aftermath. 

"All of our belongings are destroyed. I don't have any income at the moment and my husband still doesn't have a boat. We've only been getting by with help from our siblings and from previous relief efforts," Butial said. 

Butial claimed that in her 17 years of residing in her home in Catanduanes, Rolly was the strongest tropical cyclone she had ever experienced.

DECLARATION. Bicol youth calls for a climate emergency declaration days after the region was battered by typhoons Quinta, Rolly, and Ulysses on November 8, 2020.

Photo by Bicol University Science Alliance Club

According to the United Nations, flooding is made more likely by extreme weather events caused by long-term global climate change.

Rising global temperatures mean more rain, a reality that typhoon-stricken Philippines has grappled with for years. Other effects of climate change include heat waves, melting glaciers, and warming oceans – occurrences that will likewise affect all life on earth.

Climate emergency

Youth Strike 4 Climate member Sophia Caralde said that recent events should make the government realize the importance of climate response. 

Several Filipinos have recently revived a petition led by Greenpeace Philippines in December 2019 that urges government to declare a national climate emergency. Following the onslaught of Typhoon Ulysses in November, the number of signatories spiked from 2,500 to 16,730 as of January 10, 2021. 

"Unfortunately, we need to experience the worst before most of our society and our government realize the need to declare a climate emergency and implement urgent and bold climate actions. We have been talking about [a] climate emergency declaration since 2019 but no one [was] listening to us. Now, look at where we are," Caralde said. 

Following the series of tropical cyclones, the House of Representatives passed in November a resolution declaring a climate emergency in the Philippines. House members unanimously approved House Resolution No. 1377, which requires all national and local projects and appropriations to be "climate and disaster responsive."

The House committee on disaster resilience also approved House Resolution No. 535, which seeks a whole-of-government, whole-of-society, and whole-of-nation policy response to anticipate, halt, reduce, reverse, address, and adapt to the impacts, consequences, and causes of natural disasters.

President Rodrigo Duterte had also demanded developed nations to step up efforts to curb global warming, as Ulysses battered parts of Luzon. He earlier said in September 2020 that he's considering a climate emergency declaration in the country to help achieve its goals under the Paris Agreement.

Advocates said that the acknowledgement made by the Philippine government is a step forward. Still, beyond lip service, they reiterated that concrete climate-centered plans must be enforced as soon as possible.

Concrete climate-centered plans needed

There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to climate emergency declaration responses, and it is ultimately up to governments to decide how to act upon it.

For instance, Scotland, one of the pioneering countries that declared a climate emergency, made changes to their Climate Change Bill with a revised 2045 target for net zero emissions. Immediate actions were also set in place, like mobilizing £11 billion of annual public procurement to climate emergency response needs. 

"Typhoons are becoming more intense with heavy rainfalls and higher wind speed. In short, more destructive. We expect to experience more," Virginia Benosa-Llorin, senior climate justice campaigner of Greenpeace Philippines, said. 

"We need the declaration of the climate emergency to initiate an urgent whole-of-government and whole-of-society mobilization to respond to the climate crisis at the unprecedented scale and speed needed to address it and protect people, properties, ecosystems, and the economy," she added.

Benosa-Llorin said that the country needs solutions to address long-term vulnerabilities with a coherent strategy rooted in policies that protect people and climate.

Greenpeace Philippines asserted that the declaration of climate emergency is just the "beginning" of climate response, saying that more "clear and concrete measures" have yet to be put in place by government to honor international commitments and ensure environmental protection.

The Philippines, for instance, did not submit its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change last December 31. The NDCs detail clear commitments of the government to the global effort to combat climate change.

Several groups, including Oxfam Philippines and the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice, have called on the government to be transparent and set a clear timeline for the submission of the NDCs in 2021, even listing bare minimums to ensure a proposal with adequate mitigation actions, among others. 

Greenpeace Philippines is hoping for urgent and increased pressure, both locally and internationally, that will put a climate-centric lens on all policy, decision-making, and implementation in the Philippines. 

"These actions include, but [are] not limited to: putting climate action in the center of COVID-19 recovery plans; solidifying our stance on foreign policies that will cover climate negotiations, calling for accountability from the most responsible; as well as regulating businesses by looking at their carbon footprint and mandating carbon neutrality," Benosa-Llorin said.

Benosa-Llorin emphasized that the government plays a pivotal role in climate response, as they can put in place systemic changes and policies that curb impact to the environment and force companies to rethink their climate-destructive practices. 

While the resolutions are a good starting point, Greenpeace Philippines emphasized that follow-throughs "with concrete policy actions not only from the House of Representatives, but also the Senate and the Execution [are] needed."

Benosa-Llorin urged Filipinos to continue making their voices heard for the declaration of a climate emergency, and until sustainable changes are seen.

"We should not stop in making climate justice an important policy issue, especially now that the 2022 elections is fast approaching. This should be on top of the political agenda in the coming elections," Benosa-Llorin said. – Rappler.com

Danna Peña is a Southeast Asian Journalism Fellow for Climate Tracker, an international network that empowers and connects environmental journalists and NGOs.