climate change

[OPINION] Climate injustice

Gino L.S. Paje
[OPINION] Climate injustice
'When has a national politician ever run on a campaign upholding environmental advocacies, or an incumbent made it their primary agenda?'

I wrote the first draft of this article by hand on the second day of the power outage in Quezon City. But while all I’ve had to contend with was the annoyance of post-typhoon humidity and dead devices, 30,000 homes in nearby Marikina City were coated in mud – with many still submerged from the ravages of Typhoon Vamco. On my dying phone’s battery, which I would periodically charge at my friend’s house a few streets away, I watched a couple of videos showing people being swept away by raging floodwaters. While I give my salute to our brave rescuers who, with the help of social media, were able to save so many others, I fear that the families of those swept by the deluge would be lucky if the remains of their loved ones are found in the ocean or some tributary in some province.

With power finally restored, I am able to finalize this draft. But I also watch aghast at the developing story in Cagayan and Isabela – where it seems that rescuers are unable to reach people who spent the night in rooftops isolated by deluges caused by the typhoon as it cut a swathe across the country. The Magat Dam hosts one of, if not the largest, hydroelectric power plants in the country. To prevent an even more catastrophic torrential spill or breach of the dam, periodic releases have been conducted. Sadly, this may have exacerbated the swelling of the mighty Cagayan River.

The lack of power in the area has made it virtually impossible for authorities to conduct a night rescue. With a lack of proper media coverage, social media has rung alarm bells that casualties may be unprecedented as videos of people screaming in the black of night made the rounds. Social media fears of hundreds dead could have been an exaggeration, but at the time there was no way to tell because mainstream media has been crippled by the shutdown of the biggest news network. It is ironic that to preserve a power source, the people living around it could not be rescued as they soaked in the sheer cold of a raging typhoon – in terror and darkness.

A mere week ago, Typhoon Goni brought destruction to Bicol. In Albay, it soaked the slopes of Mayon Volcano and caused lahar flows that devastated a couple of towns and virtually erased a sitio in my hometown of Guinobatan. Where 300 houses once stood, one could now only find piles of boulders and cemented black mud.

My own family has the fortune of living a precious few kilometers from the dreaded lahar gulleys, and had to contend only with “ordinary” flashfloods up to their knees inside our home. But they had to spend agonizing hours fearing a recurrence of the deadly 2006 series of lahar flows caused by Typhoon Durian which left hundreds dead. Back then, we stood in silent vigil as truckloads of the remains of our townspeople passed by our house every day for a couple of weeks before they were buried in mass graves nearby. The constantly changing lahar paths will never truly give security to Albay communities living around Mayon’s slopes. They exist in terror with the coming of each typhoon season, and those most vulnerable are evacuated several times each year.

My family, like all other survivors in this narrative, are faring better after the storm. But in large part, they have had to rely on the kindness and hospitality of friends, relatives, and anonymous donors for shelter and sustenance as they await the floods to recede, for power and communications lines to be restored, for life to return to normalcy, even as they must go by the unique systems required by the pandemic.

But the constant fear remains with the passing of each season, as extreme weather disturbances made more frequent by the changing climate only intensify natural hazards like our lahar in the foothills of Mayon, or in natural water basins like Marikina and the Cagayan Valley. It bears stressing that in less than 3 weeks, 5 tropical cyclones (with 3 intensifying into typhoons) have ravaged some part of Luzon, with some parts like Bicol repeatedly battered.

With forecasts from authorities assuring full restoration of power in periods of weeks, it has become a sort of trend for the people in Albay to purchase generator sets so that they can communicate with distant loved ones, sleep during the humid nights, or work and study from their homes. This used to be a high luxury for the wealthy, but as technology becomes more accessible, it has become an ordinary aspiration. I must admit that my own family has aspired to own a generator set since I was a child, and with donations from relatives and friends, they have been able to do so last week.

I imagine those in the capital and in the Cagayan Valley will do the same if power restoration is significantly hampered. Unfortunately, generator sets run on the same fuel whose combustion releases carbon. And together with what we already emit by burning coal in power plants and merely by commuting and consuming in our day to day existence, carbon abundance in the atmosphere is warming the oceans and causing more numerous and more powerful typhoons with each passing year.

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In this curious feedback loop, the damage to power lines caused by a passing typhoon causes people to rely on more fossil fuel for power – in turn releasing more carbon and causing ever more frequent and devastating typhoons. Look: Typhoon Haiyan of Tacloban infamy in 2014 was the most powerful landfalling tropical cyclone ever recorded. Typhoon Meranti tied with it in 2016.  And Typhoon Goni just surpassed both of them last week.

This feedback loop would have been disrupted if the country typhoon-proofed the power grid and climate-proofed infrastructure in general. Some suggest reviving the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, installing underground power lines, and full reliance on renewable energy; but of course any proposal would have to be studied for effectivity, economic viability, and environmental impact. However, no study is incentivized nor project supported until there is a real political advocacy for climate change mitigation or adaptation – and climate justice in general.

But the President is still obsessed with a failed drug war, though at times shifting interest to corruption or some other single issue depending on public clamor, the populist that he is. And critics are quick to point out his decision to coop himself up in Davao during the onslaught of Typhoon Goni. Congress is busy fighting over speakerships, or canceling the franchise of critical broadcast networks (when the press is actually doing its job by criticizing), over which disaster-stricken communities now apparently suffer.

Even the Opposition, while they done admirable and tremendous work in relief and rescue, is reactive in their actions – responding to disasters as they happen. Most of the time, the Opposition to which we look for some sense in this chaos is just pre-occupied with congressional inquiries in Administration activities.

But the greatest threats we face – those that are truly existential – will always be environmental. For now, we are faced with a changing climate and the coronavirus pandemic: the latter we are now learning is a zoonosis and thus intimately relates to habitat loss and the wildlife trade.

And yet there is a gaping dearth of political advocacy for environmental concerns. When has a national politician ever run on a campaign upholding environmental advocacies, or an incumbent made it their primary agenda?

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There is probably no popular climate movement in this country because its carbon footprint is a mere drop in the bucket of carbon produced by the gargantuan emitters that are the developed nations. This is true. But it is also true that the suffering they must endure right now due to climate change is minute – relative to us who are battered by typhoons by the week now and have nothing to rely on but donations and a gag-inducing, concept of resilience that our toxic culture seems to perpetuate. And yet China and European countries have announced plans to be carbon neutral in the coming decades. We expect the US under this Democratic President-elect to make similar commitments.

But how about the Philippines, the country actually in the front lines? Shame on us if we have to depend on the Greta Thunbergs of the world to uphold our interests!

What right have we as a nation to demand the gargantuan emitters to cut their emissions when we can boast of shockingly absent climate politics? Do we parrot China’s excuse a generation ago, that we as a developing country are not responsible for cutting carbon emissions as we pursue our economic targets? What nonsense, given the state of the climate that we are barely surviving!

And really – why limit the blame for carbon emissions on individual states, or individual persons for that matter – when we all stand to lose just one planet? Every state, and every person, shares one stake in this – a livable future. Because IN THIS CLIMATE we should be thinking twice about having a next generation in the first place. –

Gino L.S. Paje is an underbar working for the environment department. He believes that the minimum qualification for a candidate in the next elections should be a solid climate agenda, and on the part of the electorate – single issue politics can only be justified if it is about climate change.

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