A good day in Paris

Last Saturday, December 12, after extending the climate change negotiations for a day, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, president of the 21st Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, entered the La Seine plenary hall of the Le Bourget conference center and addressed the thousands of us who were there: “I now invite the COP to adopt the decision entitled Paris Agreement outlined in the document. Looking out to the room I see that the reaction is positive, I see no objections. The Paris agreement is adopted.”

A standing ovation, pandemonium and jubilation follows the announcement. In the Philippine table, Secretaries Emmanuel de Guzman and Neric Acosta, and diplomat Angele Ponce and I embraced. For me personally, it was a moment to relish having worked on climate change for 25 years now and on this particular negotiation process since 2009.

Minister Laurent is right: “With a small hammer you can achieve great things.” He also said: ”It’s rare in life to be able to move things forward at the planet level.” These are words of wisdom from a socialist politician who was once prime minister of France and still holds the distinction of being the youngest ever to hold that position.

Shortly after the announcement, Secretary de Guzman, Vice-Chair of our Climate Change Commission and the head of the Philippine delegation, took the floor and accepted on behalf of the Philippines the Paris Agreement. He acknowledges that the agreement is not perfect but it is acceptable: “We can build on it and make it better over time. We must now focus on its implementation and on the compliance procedures and will engage in the process.”

Secretary de Guzman explained the context of our presence in Paris: “For each of the past four years, at this time when we come for annual climate meetings, as our Earth spins to another end and another beginning of her voyage around the sun, a powerful typhoon visited the Philippines, carving out an immense swathe of devastation, deprivation and death of many of our countrymen, persistently and rudely reminding us of the significance of our role and the urgency of mission in this Conference of the Parties.”

For our country, according to de Guzman, “climate change means sorrowful catalogues of casualty and fatality; the countless voices of the homeless and the grieving — their very tears and screams carried to us by the winds and waves that blew their homes away.” He eloquently pointed out how: “During moments of great violence and bereavement, “victim” is an inadequate word to capture the loss and damage visited upon us. Each body count has a name and an age — is workmate or lover, neighbor or friend, son or daughter, father or mother.”

Secretary de Guzman then cited five reasons why the Paris Agreement is a step in the right direction for addressing climate change:

First, the 1.5 goal has defined the global ambition for climate action. 1.5 can enable us to survive and thrive. As Chair of the Climate Vulnerability Forum, we were the strongest voice on this issue.

Second, the Agreement establishes human rights as its bedrock principle, including the rights of indigenous peoples, women, young people, and migrants, among others. For the first time, climate justice is recognized in an international legally binding agreement. We were the first to propose this link between human rights and climate change, helping put together a coalition of countries that insisted it be included.

Third, the Agreement ensures ecosystem integrity in climate actions, a very important principle. We were also the strongest advocate of this, a reminder that climate change is not just about carbon.

Fourth, the Agreement ensures support in finance, technology, and capacity building for all adaptation and mitigation efforts. Our negotiations teams worked very hard to get the best deal possible under the circumstances.

Fifth, we succeeded in getting a Loss and Damage Article in the Agreement, an important development for a country of many small islands. Our adaptation team provided the ideas that bridge various positions on this difficult issue.

The Paris Agreement actually echoes the message of Pope Francis in Laudato Si: “The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together, to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan, or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.”

Despite diversity and divergence, the countries and peoples of the world found common ground in Paris.  As Secretary de Guzman pointed out: “Solidarity is not a stranger to Paris. When terrorists attacked this city last month, its people did not give in to baser instincts, nor were they defeated by fear. Instead, the people of Paris reached out to each other, her minorities included, and now, they have welcomed us all warmly with open hearts and arms.”

When I was conceptualizing the Philippine statement based on Secretary de Guzman’s instructions, I reached out to Ateneo de Manila English teacher Ramon Sunico who coincidentally had taught Secretary de Guzman and me in the 1980s. Secretary de Guzman and I wanted a good final speech and we thought enlisting our old teacher, one of the country’s top poets and writers, would be helpful.

After informing him that it was in Le Bourget where Charles Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927 for the first successful trans-Atlantic flight, Professor Sunico unearthed a poignant story about the first airport of Paris.

In 1927, two weeks before Lindbergh, also called the Lone Eagle, landed in le Bourget, France’s own biplane, L’Oiseau Blanc (the White Bird) took off and then disappeared just as it approached the coast of North America.

The white bird today is associated with peace but a long time ago, lost in the mists of myth and lore, a white bird with a tree branch in its beak brought hope at the end of a global cataclysm, a great flood remembered in many epics and the holy writings of many cultures.

In Paris, last Saturday, each person there released white wings of hope before a future of rising waters and weeping winds.

Let us promise each other then that these birds will never disappear, that instead, we will follow them with our eyes, our hearts, our minds and above all our will, so they perch safely on the lands where our children play.

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