Demanding a climate agenda

published 27 March 2016
If you were asked to name the single most pressing problem that the Philippines faces at this point, what would your answer likely be? Chances are, it’s any of the following: poverty, corruption, education, infrastructure, unemployment, peace and order, and drugs. 
 And indeed, these are the topics on which the presidential candidates focused on during their debate last Sunday. So absorbed were they with these pressing problems that none among the four was able to articulate a coherent stand when asked about the issue of climate change, specifically their position on balancing the country’s energy requirements with the need for clean, renewable sources of such. 
Let’s make no mistake about it: Poverty, corruption, unemployment, drugs, inadequate education, infrastructure, and peace and order are urgent and must be addressed. Failure to do so will compromise Filipinos’ quality of life and prevent them from becoming productive citizens. 
Still, these must not allow us to leave out concerns on the environment and on preparing for disasters. Sure, when the weather is good and everything appears business as usual, it is easy to forget that the problems we face include those we do not always see and those that will outlive us. 
And then the next big storm comes, and we are left scrambling, wondering why we never learn. 
Former United States Vice President Al Gore was in Manila earlier this month to conduct a three-day training on climate change. Gore also visited Tacloban City on the weekend before the training and saw for himself the devastation wrought by Typhoon “Yolanda” more than two years ago. He said he talked to a few families about their ordeal and how—if at all—they had managed to rebuild their lives.   
“We don’t have centuries,” Gore, founder and chairman of The Climate Reality Project, said as he opened the three-day conference held March 14 to 16 at the Sofitel. “We have years.”
The former US veep started by showing a photo of the earth taken from space. It’s a beautiful photo that reminds us of how precious the planet is but also masks the actual danger that earth faces. In truth, the planet is like a sewer that absorbs all the greenhouse gases spewed into the atmosphere. While there are numerous sources of GHGs, 85 percent of the world’s energy requirements are still sourced from dirty carbon-based fuels, Gore said. This has caused the substantial warming of the atmosphere, making the number of extremely hot days higher than the number of cooler-than-average days. In fact, 2015 was the hottest year on record—and 2016 is promising to surpass that. The heat energy being trapped in the atmosphere is equivalent to 400,000 Hiroshima bombs exploding every day of the year. 
Gore established the link between warm atmosphere and extreme weather events. A staggering 93 percent of the additional heat is trapped in the oceans, and the warmer oceans evaporate more water vapor into the skies.  He described these as “atmospheric rivers” that unleash record downpours, resulting in unprecedented flooding and devastation in communities. 
At the same time, the heat trapped in the atmosphere also siphons moisture off of the land, causing forest fires and equally unprecedented drought.  
These phenomena breed food and water shortages, geopolitical instability and disease. And, as Pope Francis reminds us, the gravest effects of attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest.
But Gore is not just a prophet of doom. Yes, he tells us that the situation is dire and the consequences of inaction will be greater. Yes, the poor are suffering the most. But something can still be done.  
As he said on his Ted Talk posted last month, humankind can reverse the trend. He cites causes for optimism: The use of wind and solar energy has surpassed projections exponentially, and costs have been going down.  
In Paris last year, 196 countries signed an agreement committing to curb their emissions. The agreement, assessed by experts as not perfect but good enough, at least embodied nations’ recognition of the need to act in concert to prevent global temperatures from increasing at a runaway rate—beyond which catastrophe will happen.  
Finally, the best approach to be taken is from the grassroots. People need to demand from their leaders that the climate crisis, specifically what must be done in both mitigation and adaptation, be put on the agenda. Leaders must make it part of the conversation not just because it is fashionable, not just because any nation is a major or minor historical or current emitter, but because it is the kind of concern that has profound effects on our present and our future. 
Forget screaming headlines or catchy sound bytes. The climate crisis deserves its place alongside other national concerns. It certainly has a span much longer than any political term or election cycle. 
Is it really asking too much of our candidates to get them to talk about their plans, if they even think this is worth planning about in the first place?