Fasting for climate justice

Seventeen years ago, in June 1996, I met a young man named Naderev Saño in a first year law classroom in the University of the Philippine College of Law. I remember  the day I met Yeb in my Kasaysayan ng Batas (Legal History) class. After all, how many Filipinos are named after the “NAtional DEmocratic REVolution” by revolutionary parents? Yeb impressed me not just for the name and pedigree but because he showed even then passion, imagination, and a commitment to the poor, ingredients of what I considered great lawyering that UP Law is supposed to encourage in its graduates. While disappointed that Yeb did not continue with law school, the loss of the legal profession was clearly a gain for the environmental community.

Yeb and I would meet again in December 2001 in The Hague, Netherlands, for the 6th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). By that time, he was already working for WWF-Philippines, a great environmental organization while I was working for the World Resources Institute, a Washington DC based international environmental think tank. In The Hague, I advised Yeb on the process and how to be effective as a lobbyist and negotiator. Through the years, that mentoring and collaboration continued. Our relationship was also strengthened when he and his fiancé, one of the best lawyers I have ever worked with in the environmental and disaster field, asked me to be a “ninong” (principal witness) to their wedding. In the Philippines, such a relationship can be as deep as blood kinship.

This week, my student Yeb Saño and I reversed roles. Yeb became my teacher and from him I learned valuable lessons about the human spirit.

I am talking of Yeb’s speech, who as commissioner of the Climate Change Commission is the lead negotiator of the country in the climate change negotiations, in the opening plenary of the 19th meeting of the COP in Warsaw, Poland. In the national stadium of this city, Yeb pleaded to thousands of delegates (from over 190 countries) and stakeholders to “stop the madness” of the climate crisis. He detailed the effects of Haiyan/Yolanda to the Philippines, of the loss of lives, the thousands missing, and of the suffering from this horrific disaster. His tone was persistent, strong but calm although his voice cracked during the most moving parts of his speech when he mentioned Dulag, Leyte, his father’s hometown, and when he shared his fears about his brother AG, who survived the onslaught in Leyte and searched for and carried dead bodies amid hunger and fatigue.

In his speech, Yeb announced that he would be voluntarily fasting until he sees a concrete outcome from COP19. Not a few were surprised and moved. When he finished, our delegation stood up, followed by the other parties. All were clapping. The applause went for more than 5 minutes and the youth in the stadium chanted “We stand by you!”

The Chinese chief negotiator, a  hard-nosed veteran of this process, stood up on a point of order and moved that the plenary dedicate three minutes of silence for the Philippines. Everyone stood up and bowed their heads quietly. Some, including Yeb and members of the delegation, wept.  

As Yeb begins a sixth day of fasting, many expressions of support by delegates and stakeholders here in Warsaw as well as from people all over the world have been conveyed to us. Media attention has been high; there are also ongoing solidarity fasts here and outside.

There is a distinction between a hunger strike, principally a political act and form of protest, and voluntary fasting for a just outcome intended to appeal to all men and women of good will to come together for a common cause. As Yeb told me, in email when I was still in Manila and yesterday here in Warsaw, he came to this decision with a lot of discernment and prayer. Voluntary fasting is not intended to force our partners in the negotiating table to concede to our demands; instead, the act of fasting is an appeal to a common humanity, for conversion so we can all work together in dialogue for a just outcome. That outcome is best described by Yeb’s stirring words excerpted below:

“We cannot sit and stay helpless staring at this international climate stalemate. It is now time to take action. We need an emergency climate pathway.”

“We can take drastic action now to ensure that we prevent a future where super typhoons are a way of life. Because we refuse, as a nation, to accept a future where super typhoons like Haiyan become a fact of life. We refuse to accept that running away from storms, evacuating our families, suffering the devastation and misery, having to count our dead, become a way of life. We simply refuse to.”

“We call on this COP to pursue work until the most meaningful outcome is in sight. Until concrete pledges have been made to ensure mobilization of resources for the Green Climate Fund. Until the promise of the establishment of a loss and damage mechanism has been fulfilled; until there is assurance on finance for adaptation; until concrete pathways for reaching the committed 100 billion dollars have been made; until we see real ambition on stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations. We must put the money where our mouths are.

This process under the UNFCCC has been called many names. It has been called a farce. It has been called an annual carbon-intensive gathering of useless frequent flyers. It has been called many names. But it has also been called the Project to save the planet. It has been called “saving tomorrow today”. We can fix this. We can stop this madness. Right now. Right here, in the middle of this football field.”

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