Global Warming: Frontline Philippines

As this piece was being written, the number of dead, missing, and injured and the toll on agriculture and infrastructure were still rising in Oriental Mindoro, Camarines Norte, Samar, Romblon, and other provinces where almost every barangay had been devastated by days of torrential rain.

No super typhoon was responsible, and neither is it the rainy season. Low pressure areas (LPAs) and the clash between hot and cold air have nevertheless been bringing floods to parts of southern Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao.

No country can long endure the human and material costs of the unpredictability and intensifying violence of the weather disturbances that climate change is generating across the planet — and in the Philippines they have made even more problematic the poverty and destruction that bureaucratic bungling and corruption has inflicted on millions of Filipinos.

The increasing number of the super typhoons that have been smashing into the Philippines, the unseasonal weather, the tornados, cyclones, droughts, floods, and exceptionally cold winters in other countries are among the many indications that time is running out and the hour of what could be the end of the human race approaching.

Among the most vulnerable countries to global warming is the Philippines: it is a frontliner in the seemingly global rush to extinction. Not only is it in the path of typhoons; it also sits on the Pacific “ring of fire” that powers earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The deaths, the injuries, and the billions in property losses and livelihood from these disasters contribute to the poverty and want that already define the lives of millions of Filipinos.

Even without global warming, crafting and implementing a national disaster mitigation program has always been among the responsibilities of any Philippine administration. To the need for such a program has been added the necessity of incorporating in it provisions that will give the Philippines a fighting chance in surviving the onslaught of the weather anomalies climate change is generating.

But the National Government has been remiss in the making of such a program. Local government units (LGUs) complain not only of the lack of funds for the dredging of creeks and rivers and for resident relocation, but also of the erratic and even non-existent reach of the food and other aid communities need during the current weather crisis.

No sense of urgency drove the previous administration to remedy the situation. Then President Rodrigo Duterte even had an excuse for his limited response to the victims of the super typhoons that ravaged the country, despite the billions of pesos budgeted for that purpose. Instead, he promised in 2021 to look for the funds needed to rehabilitate devastated communities. Hence it was mostly from foreign sources — the UN, Japan, the US and other countries — that those affected obtained some relief.

Unfortunately, neither has there been any sign that the Marcos II regime is seriously thinking of addressing the problems that climate change is aggravating, such as the decline in agricultural productivity and the losses in lives and property in the affected communities. Mr. Marcos is instead focused on regaling the rest of the world with his administration’s supposedly great economic achievements, the vast investment opportunities in the Philippines, and his sudden mastery of the complex realities of the country’s foreign relations.

Not all the 20 or so weather disturbances that enter the Philippine Area of Responsibility (PAR) annually make landfall. But even those that do not can still bring rains, flash floods, and landslides. Depending on the power of their winds, the rain they bring, and the number of places they ravage, those that do make landfall can be even more devastating. And as recent events are demonstrating, the rains from LPAs alone can bring unprecedented disasters to the most vulnerable communities.

These phenomena are likely to intensify, and they affect the entire country and the lives of everyone in it. Social and natural scientists have described the climate crisis as a threat worse than nuclear war to the future of organized human life. But little is being done in the Philippines by either local governments or their national counterpart to protect the most vulnerable communities from flooding and storm surges. Rather than pro-active risk-reduction, which global warming has made more urgent, government response to disasters has been mostly reactive and limited to moving those affected to improvised evacuation centers, distributing instant noodles and sardines, and urging them to relocate.

But neither the incentives, the means, nor the opportunity to relocate have been provided the residents of coastal communities, who are in perennial danger from storm surges, and those who live in places below average flood levels. Some do manage to evacuate when typhoons batter their communities. But they return to the same sites to repair or rebuild damaged or destroyed homes, and hence are in constant danger of losing their lives and property when the next typhoon comes.

Relocating can prevent the repetition of the same woes. But without access to livelihood sources, water supplies, and electric power in places they are unfamiliar with, few families are willing to risk it. And yet the millions still being spent on maintaining such frivolities as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ (DENR) Dolomite Folly could be better spent on, among others, providing endangered communities the incentives that could help reduce the annual human and material costs of weather disturbances.

Together with such a program, a national plan could include the construction of a system of levees along the country’s most vulnerable coastal areas. A network of permanent evacuation centers could also be constructed, and stricter engineering standards implemented in the construction of roads, bridges, buildings, homes, and other infrastructure.

Global warming has been attributed to, among others, the carbon dioxide and methane gasses that are released into the atmosphere by industries and the burning of fossil fuels of such countries as the United States, the European countries, Japan, and China. Reducing such emissions to stop the rise in global temperatures is therefore mostly those countries’ responsibility. They have to forge and implement working protocols to regulate their environmentally destructive industries and reduce the amount of pollutants from other sources discharged into the atmosphere. Among the existing conventions for that purpose are the Paris Climate Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol, but their implementation is hampered by the industrialized countries’ resistance to regulating the industries responsible.

Although not among those countries, the Philippines could make the use of alternative sources of power generation mandatory, together with the strict implementation of the Clean Air Act (RA 8749). It can also contribute to the global imperative of halting the threat by adopting a national plan devised by scientists, environmentalists, and other experts to ease the impact of disasters on the most endangered sectors of the population.

Ecologists and environmental activists have long been alerting the planet on the perils of climate change, but the governments of most countries, among them that of the Philippines, have not paid much attention to them. The “inconvenient truth,” as former US Vice-President Al Gore noted over two decades ago, is that not only national plans are needed but also a truly global program to address climate change.

Mr. Marcos could use his new-found skills in international relations to convince the rest of the world of that need. But rather than just globe-trotting, he could also craft and implement the policies that can combat the ravages of global warming here, in frontline Philippines.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).

Published in Business World
January 26, 2023

Featured image: Renzo D. Souza – UNSPLASH 

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