climate change

[OPINION] In action or inaction: A year of change in our climate?

John Leo C. Algo

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[OPINION] In action or inaction: A year of change in our climate?
'It took the country being hit by 5 storms in a span of 3 weeks before our representatives in the government collectively recognized the existence of the climate emergency'

To end 2020, Rappler’s Voices section has requested writers who contributed at the start of this (very eventful) year to write a follow-up to their original opinion piece.

The following is by John Leo Algo, who wrote “Resilience is not enough” in January 2020, before the height of the pandemic and the chain of typhoons.

It seems we have your attention…for now.

No other characteristic of Filipinos has been tested in 2020 than resilience. The extent of our ability to quickly recover from challenges has been highlighted through the different hazards that affected the country this year, from volcanic eruptions to a global pandemic. 

Not until the barrage of tropical cyclones that hit the Philippines a few weeks ago did many Filipinos finally realize that being resilient is no longer enough. It is undeniable that global warming intensifies extreme weather events and other forms of climate change that may cause losses and damages. But we must never forget that the disasters we have seen all year only happen because our leaders fail in adequately preparing communities for these hazards.

As a response to this crisis, the House of Representatives recently passed a resolution declaring a climate and environmental emergency. This declaration aims to enhance climate action by mobilizing national and local government agencies and instrumentalities for an effective implementation of laws related to climate change and disaster risk reduction management. 

This may be seen as a key development in the fight against the climate crisis, as there is now an official document that expresses the Philippines calling on corporations and countries with high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to take responsibility for this crisis. It also continues a slow shift in recent government energy policy, as it also calls on local governments and industries to reject coal and initiate a just transition towards renewable energy. 

Yet this declaration is an indicator that the change needed to address climate change has not come for the Philippines. 

It took the country being hit by 5 storms in a span of 3 weeks before our representatives in the government collectively recognized the existence of the climate emergency. This is a reality that has already been known to many Filipinos, especially those who have fallen victim to its impacts, for more than a decade.  

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Where are we going?

Through the likes of Ondoy, Yolanda, and Rolly, among other storms, we have seen over and over again how action seems to be only taken by many of our leaders once the impacts become too disastrous to ignore. If they are already failing to reduce the harm done by familiar hazards on communities, how else would we fare against the impacts of slow onset events such as sea level rise, ocean acidification, and land degradation?

This is one of the many reasons why the creation of a Department of Disaster Resilience, another key climate-related issue this year, is unlikely to help us better address this crisis. Given bureaucratic inefficiencies and against the basic principle of enhancing local capacities, centralizing disaster response is an illogical strategy to deal with climate-related hazards. 

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Placing so much emphasis on response over prevention through this department makes no sense, especially in dealing with slow onset events, whose effects are more long-term damaging and likelier to be irreversible. This strategy is also more costly and a symptom of the reactive culture that would continue to haunt the Philippines as climate change impacts become more extreme.  

Furthermore, it is one thing to formally recognize something years after what many Filipinos already know. It is another thing to translate words into action, to follow through with pledges of developing renewable energy resources, saying no to coal, and strengthening research and science-based policymaking to enhance climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. 

How many times have we heard about the Philippines having some of the best-written policies and laws on climate and the environment in the world, yet fall short on implementation? Factors such as the lack of political will and allocated resources, incoherent strategies from various agencies, misguided preference for coal, and influence of fossil fuel interests have hindered our progress at the national and local levels, spanning multiple administrations. 

The insufficient focus on climate change in the national agenda is also observed in other plans and strategies. This is evident in the lack of green recovery strategies in national plans for addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically on building and strengthening climate-proof infrastructures and systems. The country is also having difficulties in finalizing its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), due by the end of 2020.

The NDC submission is key to showing serious commitment to dealing with the climate emergency, a self-determined plan of targets and concrete actions to help limit global warming under the Paris Agreement. Unfortunately, its latest draft remains to be presented to the public. Key elements such as economy-wide targets for reducing GHG emissions and a prioritization on emissions avoidance are also missing. 

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This year is the supposed beginning of the “Decade of Action,” as the world has until 2030 to constrain global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and achieve sustainable development. Not only is the Philippines off to a rough start, but we have a long way to go before we even find ourselves on the right path.

It is fair to expect that a few months from now, the media will lose focus on reporting on climate change, many government units and officials will treat the climate emergency with no urgency, and climate advocates will go back to being ignored and targeted with false accusations. This has been the norm in the Philippines, even pre-COVID. Unless we learn to choose wisely, it is not a matter of if, but when more people and other life on Earth will unnecessarily suffer from a failure of leadership. 

Still we hope that the next year and beyond will tell a different story. Isn’t that being the right kind of resilient? –

John Leo Algo is the Program Manager of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines and Climate Action for Sustainability Initiative (KASALI), and a member of the interim Secretariat of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas. He has been a citizen journalist since 2016 and has a MS Atmospheric Science degree from the Ateneo de Manila University.

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