Time to declare a climate emergency

With this column, I begin a new series on the climate emergency. I write this first article from Songdo, South Korea where I am attending the Board meeting of the Green Climate Fund and I am realizing that there is a lot of new information and important global and Philippine developments on this issue. This series will shed light on these.

Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s preeminent scientific body on climate change, published a report with a long and complex title: “Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.”  With such a title, the message of the report could be lost in translation.

That is a pity because the findings of the report are crystal clear. As Brooking’s Institution’s Nathan Hultman pointed out in a blog posted right after the IPCC report was released: “An equally accurate but more evocative title could have been “We’re almost out of time.””

In essence, we only have until 2030 to transform the global economy to avoid the worst impacts of climate change by 2050. This is very different from when I did a law dissertation on the subject for Yale Law School in the early 1990 when the science was much more uncertain and the projections of the worst scenarios were for the end of the 21st century or 2200 and thereabouts.

Of course between the 1990s and the 2010s, we have seen how the early science has underestimated in terms of timing and severity the arrival of the impacts of climate change. In the 1990s, whenever I talked about climate change, I always mentioned how one day typhoons like Yolanda, Pablo, Sendong, Ondoy, etc. could devastate our islands and cities. But in my first presentations, because of the scientific information available then, I always said these storms were like to happen later in the 21st Century or early in the 22nd Century. I was a hundred years off in my projection.

Nowadays, in my climate change lectures, I point to our vulnerable cities, foremost of which are those in the Manila Bay region. I tell my usually younger audiences that I will not be surprised if within their lifetimes, they would have to deal with major storm surges that threaten the reclaimed areas and Manila;s historic sites. When I give my usual lecture to our young diplomats undergoing training as cadets at the Foreign Service Institute, I ask them to imagine themselves or their colleagues one day trapped  by floods and/or storm surges, exacerbated by sea level rise in the old Department of Foreign Affairs building in Roxas Boulevard.

In the context of the threat of climate change, all the efforts of Mayor Isko Moreno to revive the glory of Old Manila will come to naught. Certainly, all proposed reclamation projects in the region should be abandoned as they will increase the threat for all of us.

Given the magnitude of what the climate change impacts we are facing, it is time now to declare a climate emergency. The global community should do that. The Philippine government must do that. The city of Manila, all the cities of our metropolis, and all our coastal cities and provinces must do that.

Among others, instead of withdrawing or minimizing our diplomatic engagement on climate change, we actually need to give it more priority and emphasis. Our strong voice, effective for many years (including up to the 2015 Paris meeting, the last important gathering of heads of state), is needed to push this important goal of having the global community declare a climate change emergency.

I would encourage Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin, a man I will always admire even when I sometimes disagree with him, to plan ahead for the 2020 Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That is a critical conference if we want to push the agenda of climate justice forward.

A climate emergency declaration is also urgent for local governments.

Among others, New York City, London, Sydney and a total of 722 localities in 15 countries have already made this declaration of “an immediate emergency mobilization to restore a safe climate.” The City of Manila should join this cohort as a matter of priority.

Indeed, we are faced with a climate crisis of immense dangers. The climate threat has been described as not just “dangerous”, or even ‘”catastrophic”, but “existential” – “a threat that could annihilate most people on earth.”

The threat is not only to people, but to all life. Climate change, as pinned down by the recently released Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), accelerate the destruction of ecosystems and the extinction of species. In that assessment, the authors concldue that a million species face extinction and rank five direct drivers of that, with climate change as the third biggest culprit following changes in land and sea use and direct exploitation of organisms and ranked higher than pollution and invasive alien species.

Time is running out to address the climate emergency, but actions being done are not commensurate to what has to be done. As pointed out by Jane Morton in Don’t Mention the Emergency: Making the Case for Emergency Climate Action (See climateemergencydeclaration.org), this is because “vested interests are running the biggest disinformation campaign in history”.  Fossil fuel, mainly oil and coal interests, unfortunately have “a corrupting influence on politicians and the media and are prepared to spend millions of dollars to block action”.

Morton documents how climate scientists are pressured to understate the risks, threatened and harassed and risk losing research funding for making strong statements. She describes IPCC reports as tending  towards reticence and caution, erring on the side of ‘least drama’, and downplaying the more extreme and more damaging outcomes.” 

Having previously been Executive Director of the Manila Observatory, a 150 year old scientific research institution that used to be the weather bureau of the Philippines and is a leading climate change science institution in Asia, I appreciate the need for peer review and avoiding catatasthropic language. Many of my colleagues have doctorates in Physics and are trained in the scientific method. Although they are not activists, they do know that what we are studying has serious consequences for human well-being and especially for the poor.

Morton quotes Kate Marvel, a climate scientist, who wrote eloquently that what we need  to face climate change is not hope, but courage.

I always end my talks on climate change with a message of hope. But I agree that such hope must be grounded in courage to change things. Without courage, hope is false.

I agree with Hans Schellnhuber, founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact, who points out that humanity is “now reaching the end-game.” Morton is right: “There is now not enough time for a long debate about whether the current climate trajectory is an emergency or can be addressed with gradual change. The forecasts are compelling and the scenarios are devastating. It’s time to move straight to the most important question of our times: how to restore a safe climate at emergency speed.”

In the next column, I will write about climate change and poverty, summarizing and reflecting on a recently released Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. This will be followed by two columns on adaptation and mitigation solutions that can be done at the local, national, and global levels. Finally, I will write about what the climate emergency demands of our leaders – from national government officials, local leaders, and our diplomats.

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