Climate crisis: Peoples act while governments falter

In the Philippines, used as we are to tropical heat such as the long dry spell of recent weeks, global warming doesn’t seem to be the huge problem that it is in other countries where wild fires and extreme temperatures kill hundreds of vulnerable people.

But even as we count ourselves lucky in this regard, it is now known that our planet Earth is rapidly undergoing tremendous physical change largely as a result of human activities. A climate crisis, indeed, that brought about an international consensus to do something about it before it’s too late.

At the Paris climate-change conference in 2015, an agreement was made by 197 governments (including the Philippines) to take steps towards limiting the rise of global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius within this century. Moves have subsequently been pushed to attain that target by 2050. Thus far, according to reports from Europe, the reduction achieved has hovered at 3 degrees C.

At the last Group of 20 (G-20) summit held in Japan a week ago, 19 of the 20 member-states reaffirmed their 2015 commitments. The lone exception was the United States, under Donald Trump’s presidency, which is standing pat on withdrawing from the Paris accord. Trump (backed by Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro and Turkey’s Tayyif Erdogan) reportedly sought to delete from the communique any reference to the Paris agreement.

There is in fact a negative trend of actions on the part of the rich nations to ignore or cirrcumvent their commitments. A report by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) disclosed that G-20 states have mostly increased their subsidies to coal-fired power plants – the biggest contributor to global carbon emissions – almost three times in recent years: from $17 billion in 2014 to $47 billion in 2017.

Japan, which hosted the latest G-20 summit for the first time, was identified in the ODI report as one of the biggest financial supporters of coal. Ironically, just last September Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was quoted as having said: “Climate change can be life threatening to all generations… We must take more robust actions and reduce the use of fossil fuels.”

More than Japan, however, China and India have given the biggest subsidies to coal, the ODI report points out. Japan ranks third, followed by South Africa, South Korea, Indonesia, and the US. Although the UK frequently runs its electricity grid without using coal, last month a parliamentary report questioned the “billions of pounds” which the UK used to help build fossil-fuel power plants overseas.

China is supporting the construction of coal-fired power plants in the Philippines, according to a Guardian report, and a new organization, Oriang Women’s Movement, is opposing the Chinese projects. The Department of Energy website showed a report on Feb. 5, 2019, quoting Secretary Alfonso Cusi that he would continue a program inviting China to put up in the country “merchant power plants” using coal “to help augment energy deficiency.” The report says Cusi had signed a memorandum of understanding to this effect with the Chinese government in 2017.

While signatory countries are hypocritically circumventing or ignoring the Paris agreement, their own citizens are stepping up to make their respective governments take responsibility. Last Thursday, a report by the Grantham Institute and the London School of Economics revealed that more than 1,300 legal actions have already been lodged in the courts in 28 countries, initiated by private organizations, groups, and individuals decrying their governments’ inadequate actions to reduce global heating.

An overwhelming majority of the climate-change litigations – 1,023 cases – have been filed in the United States. Among the other countries cited were Australia, with 94 cases; United Kingdom, 53; New Zealand, 17; Spain, 13; Brazil and Germany, 5 cases each.

The lawsuits filed in the US mostly have sought to stop or prevent President Trump from reversing, through executive orders, environmental regulations instituted by his predecessors, mainly by President Barack Obama. And, according to the Guardian, the above-cited report points out that of the 154 cases thus far analyzed, “no such reversal of a climate regulation brought before the courts has yet survived a legal challenge.”

Other positive outcomes for such people-initiated climate-change litigation are as follows:

+ One landmark case filed in Pakistan four years ago resulted in a court ruling which established the right of a citizen to challenge his government’s lack of action on climate change – on the ground that the inaction violated his human rights.

The landmark ruling stemmed from the suit filed by a farmer in Punjab, Ashgar Leghari, who charged the Pakistan government with failure to ensure water, food, and energy security for himself/the people in the face of problems caused by climate change. The unprecedented court ruling pushed the government to establish a Climate Change Commission to address the problems that the farmer raised.

• In the United Kingdom, Client Earth (an NGO) has repeatedly won favorable court action in its suits against the government’s failure to take action on “illegal levels of air pollution.”

• In the Netherlands, the court ruled favorably in a case filed by Urgenda Foundation demanding that the government adopt stricter reduction targets for greenhouse gas emission. (The Dutch government is appealing.}

• Last May, a group of individuals living in the Torres Strait islands at the northern tip of Australia petitioned the United Nations Human Rights Council urging it to pressure the Australian government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adopt adequate coastal defense measures in consultation with the island communities.

“The use of climate-change litigation as a tool to effect policy change is likely to continue,” noted the report, citing stepped-up legal actions by NGOs and other people’s organizations.

Meantime, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston has submitted a damning report to the UNHRC, saying that steps taken by the UN itself, its member-countries, NGOs, and businesses have been inadequate – “entirely disproportionate” – to the urgency and magnitude of the threat of global heating.

“We risk a ‘climate apartheid’ scenario,” he added, “where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflicts while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”

The impact of globally rising temperature, Alston warned, is likely to undermine not only basic rights to life, water, food, and housing for hundreds of millions of people but also democracy and the rule of law. “Human rights might not survive the coming upheaval,” he emphasized.

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Published in Philippine Star
July 6, 2019

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