Climate Change on the Hot Seat

berse 1The COMELEC has made the right call in recognizing climate change as a legitimate election issue. Alongside corruption, healthcare and education, climate change adaptation and disaster preparedness are set to be tackled in the Visayas leg of the presidential debate to be held in UP Cebu on March 20.

The country is no stranger to climate-related disasters. In the past 24 years (1990-2014), four-fifths of the disasters that hit us were storms and floods. Storms alone accounted for almost 80 percent of both our disaster mortality and economic losses.

At some point in the debate—if we can call it that—the discussion will likely veer towards Yolanda. This should not be surprising. After all, the super typhoon was a sobering reminder of the reality of global warming, to paraphrase the words of UNFCCC head Christiana Figueres.

Disaster preparedness

Globally, strong typhoons are now occurring more frequently than before, prompting not a few observers to claim that it is the “new normal.” In the Philippines, recent typhoons and even relatively weaker tropical storms (ex. Sendong and Ondoy) coinciding with excessive or continuous rainfall have led to secondary yet deadlier and even more destructive hazards in the form of landslides, mudflows, flash floods, and storm surge.

But what became the litmus test for our “paradigm shift” from reactive disaster management to proactive disaster risk management was when Yolanda, one of the world’s strongest typhoons ever recorded, made landfall in 2013. That particular episode stretched the limits of our capacity to handle what was then a “black swan” event—an event of high improbability but with huge societal impacts.

Many people along the so-called Yolanda corridor, the national government was caught with its pants down when the disaster struck—a point that presidential aspirants Rody Duterte and Jojo Binay would be quick to remind everyone, unequivocally passing the buck to their rival candidate, former DILG Sec. Mar Roxas, who was then in Tacloban to personally monitor and manage the situation, as it unfolded.

Apart from Roxas, who as DILG Secretary served as ex-officio Vice-Chair for Preparedness under the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), Duterte and Binay have strong bragging rights, if not the strongest among the candidates when it comes to disaster risk management. As mayors, they used to helm two of the most disaster-ready cities in the country.

Both Davao and Makati boast of having an advanced emergency response system that has caught the attention of other local governments in and outside the country. Just last year, Davao City made it as a national finalist to the Gawad Kalasag Award—an annual nationwide competition being administered by the NDRRMC to recognize outstanding government, non-government and private sector organizations involved in disaster risk management—while Makati has long been a Hall of Famer in the city category.

berse 2Beyond Yolanda

But what is at stake on Sunday is more than just the vision and capacity of our prospective leaders in handling a super storm or any other major disaster for that matter. Managing climate risks demands much more than just evacuating and rescuing people, prepositioning relief goods, and directing boots on the ground.

In fact, there is yet limited scientific evidence linking an extreme event like Yolanda with anthropogenic climate change. For this reason, scientists would rather classify an extraordinary climate-related event as a “variability.”

The more dangerous aspect of climate change is in how it triggers slow-onset disasters, the “invisible” and “neglected” kind that usually takes its toll on the countryside. We are talking about changes in precipitation patterns that may lead to severe droughts in one area and prolonged localized flooding in another.

Either way, this would have devastating effects on our interlinked food, water and energy systems.

We are also talking about changes in the temperature which will have lasting impact not only on our ecosystem but also on our health. Extreme heat waves are not that improbable anymore as data from PAGASA shows trends of increasing number of hot days and warm nights and decreasing number of cold days and cool nights.

Overall, between 1951 and 2010, our mean temperature has increased by 0.65 degree Celsius, which has serious implications on the rise of heat-related injuries (ex. heat strokes) and vector-borne diseases (ex. dengue) now and in the future.

On a macro scale, we are talking about sea-level rise which puts at risk 70 percent of our cities and municipalities located in coastal areas. If we are to count only those that are less than 10 meters above sea level—the low elevation coastal zones in geek speak—this translates to about 15 million Filipinos who will have to contend with constant inundation and saltwater intrusion to safeguard their lives, livelihoods, and assets.

A study by Dr. Rosa Perez, one of our eminent experts on climate change, has estimated that a one-meter sea level rise can potentially inundate communities in 28 of our 81 provinces. What is even more alarming is that our sea level is projected to be rising as much as five times faster than the global average.

What to watch out for

It is with this backdrop that we must view the platform of our presidential candidates in confronting the impacts of climate change. Let us hope that they go beyond the counterproductive rhetoric of Yolanda and delve instead on substantive policy discussions around food security, water sufficiency and sustainable energy in the midst of a changing climate.

Their perspectives on human security and human rights are also worth watching. The latter is particularly important if we want to uphold accountability and climate justice as part of our core principles for climate change action. This could also give us an indication as to how they are going to balance the need to develop as a nation and the obligation to protect the environment.

At the end of the day, whoever will inherit Malacanang has to chart a course in the next six years that should be in line with the post-2015 development agenda that we signed up for in 2015—the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Sustainable Development Goals, and the Paris Agreement. But more than meeting our international obligations, our choice should assure us of a resilient future which can only be realized through meaningful long-term climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction.

Assistant Professor Kristoffer B. Berse, PhD is a faculty of the National College of Public Administration and Governance in UP Diliman. He currently serves as a policy consultant of the Climate Change Commission (CCC) and coordinates the implementation of the Memorandum of Cooperation between UP and CCC on behalf of the UP-Office of the Vice-President for Public Affairs. The views in this article do not reflect the views of any of the organizations that he works with or consults for.