Climate Change: the Philippines is ‘a living laboratory for disasters’

For those who live in hazard-prone areas, it is a grave fact of life.

(Editor’s Note: This story was first published by Newsbreak.)

The film focuses on a presentation about the climate change crisis and is narrated by former US Vice President Al Gore. Around the same time moviegoers in the capital watched Gore warn that global warming could lead to more powerful and frequent weather-related catastrophes, super-typhoons Reming and Seniang ravaged the Philippines, with the former devastating parts of Albay and the latter resulting—according to Malacañang, at least—in the embarrassing postponement of the ASEAN summit in Cebu.

In the film, Gore compares the effects of disasters like Reming and Seniang to a “nature hike through the Book of Revelations,” a metaphor that rings too true for Bicolanos who lost their homes, livelihoods, and loved ones in mudslides triggered by Reming. Projecting wall-size graphs that show the almost identical rise in average world temperature with increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past 50 years, An Inconvenient Truth convincingly demonstrates the link between pollution and global warming and leaves little room for the kind of scientific equivocating that has earned the current US administration infamy as one of the few governments in the world that have not acknowledged the reality of climate change.

Even more striking than the reams of scientific data presented by the film are the images. Gore shows before-and-after shots of glaciers in Alaska and Patagonia; where there was ice decades ago, now there’s only rock. Aerial photographs document the melting and collapse of an Antarctic ice shelf roughly the size of Ilocos Sur.

He explains that if world temperatures rise another 2-4 degrees Celsius, as some scientists have predicted, further melting in Antarctica and Greenland could result in a six-meter rise in the sea level. Computer simulations of how such an elevation would change world topography give the film its most frightening moment, as broad swaths of blue engulf low-lying cities like New York, San Francisco, Calcutta, and Shanghai.

Although An Inconvenient Truth never mentions the Philippines, there’s no way to absorb the film’s message about the consequences of unchecked global warming—more frequent periods of drought and flooding, more powerful typhoons, the spread of tropical diseases, the rising sea level—without imagining the economic and social havoc they will wreak in this country.

If temperatures keep rising in the next 50 years, malaria could creep out of the jungles and into cities, thousands more Filipinos could be buried in mudslides, and Manila could be an underwater wasteland. Tourist brochures touting the archipelago’s 7,107 islands might have to be rewritten as the rising sea swallows entire chunks of land.

The worst is yet to come

The Philippines, with its active volcanoes, regular earthquakes, and an annual procession of tropical typhoons, is a “living geophysical laboratory for disasters,” according to Daniel J. McNamara, director of the Manila Observatory, a climate research center at the Ateneo de Manila University. For scientists like McNamara who study these calamities, this is cause for excitement, but for those who live in the foothills of mountains or on the slopes of volcanoes and are exposed to mudslides and lahar flows, or for residents of Southeastern Luzon whose homes are repeatedly battered by typhoons, it is a grave fact of life.

In the 2006 global climate risk index, a measure of the countries most affected by catastrophic weather events compiled by the environmental advocacy group Germanwatch, the Philippines ranked fourth in the world. The index is calculated by combining the death toll and the economic losses caused by natural disasters in a given year. The report concluded that the Philippines is “especially vulnerable toward extreme weather” and warned that the worst is yet to come.

“The countries identified as extraordinarily affected in this analysis will also become particularly endangered in the future through climate change,” it said. Research conducted at the observatory looked at some of the specific outcomes of continued global warming that could affect the Philippines. In one study, scientists projected the consequences of a one-meter rise in sea level—a conservative estimate—in Navotas. “About half of it [will be] wiped out,” McNamara says. An even greater rise could force mass migrations and create “environmental refugees,” he adds. “People will start moving up the mountains.

That’s going to put pressure on the native peoples who are there. It could cause some social problems.” The bleak future that McNamara describes also included typhoons (“there will be more of them and they’ll be bigger”), agriculture crises, (“crops that grow now, maybe rice, won’t grow anymore”), and the spread of diseases (“mosquitoes might start moving north”).

Unprepared for disaster

The Philippines cannot halt climate change by itself, but the government can make the country less vulnerable to Mother Nature’s increasingly violent tantrums, McNamara says. “All of the agencies pretty much seem to be post-disaster oriented. Science has advanced far enough [so] that we can get everyone ready before a disaster.”

McNamara cites an inexpensive, early-warning rain gauge that the observatory developed for the Mindoro provincial government. During storms, if the rainfall passes a critical level on the gauge, the local government will know to prepare for flash floods. Similar devices could be used to give advance warning of floods and mudslides elsewhere in the country, McNamara says.

But making progress on the preparedness issue with the under-funded and ambivalent Philippine government has been a slow uphill slog. The observatory gave a presentation on the perils of climate change to a group of about 50 mayors and their aides, during which the observatory offered to assist local governments with disaster preparedness.

Only seven mayors were “really serious about doing something,” McNamara says. The rest received merienda. Seven out of 50 mayors may sound discouraging, but working with local government units (LGUs) has been more fruitful than the national government, McNamara says. He recalls one frustrating episode where researchers at the observatory developed maps that detailed the vulnerability of whole provinces to different types of disasters, only to hand the maps over to the government and watch them disappear into a bureaucratic miasma.

“I don’t know,” an exasperated McNamara says of the maps. “They’re somewhere.”

Constant struggle

Persuading legislators to address climate change is a constant struggle for Von Hernandez, campaign director for the environmental group Greenpeace. “It’s not easy,” he said. “We’ve been running these campaigns for years now. I would be amazed if the number of senators who know about climate change would be more than the fingers on your hands. They don’t really understand the issue and we are often dismissed as doomsayers.”

Hernandez gives more credit to the weather bureau and the executive branch, which has acknowledged climate change and warned the public of its ill effects. The government, however, should “invest more in disaster mitigation” and the kind of advance warning systems being developed at the Manila Observatory.

While advocacy groups like Greenpeace haven’t been able to reach politicians yet, Hernandez believes they have made progress with legislators and are close to a breakthrough. “I wouldn’t write it up as a failure at this point,” he says. “I think the tide is turning.

The lesson of the super-typhoons sent the message loud and clear: We have choices, but we have to make those choices now.” Increased media attention to climate change and the impact of An Inconvenient Truth have helped legitimize groups like Greenpeace, Hernandez says. This has made it harder for government skeptics to write off environmentalists as extremists.

“The media have recognized the problem,” he says. “Sooner or later the politicians will follow.” – Rappler.com

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