The Future of Climate Justice in the Philippines

What Marcos’ election means for the environmental movement

In February 1986, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in major regions of the Philippines to call for the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos. Widely known as a non-violent revolt, the so-called EDSA People Power Revolution struck the final blow to two decades of authoritarian rule and eventually paved the way for the formal restoration of democratic institutions.

Today the elder Marcos’s namesake is poised to occupy the country’s top post, with Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. on the verge of being declared the country’s next president.

Despite public records of civil and human rights abuses and corruption associated with the Marcos family, Marcos Jr. raced ahead of nine other candidates for president. Further consolidating Marcos’s base was his running mate for vice-president: no other than Sara Duterte, daughter of sitting Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

In many ways, the national elections in May can be seen as a popular indictment of the country’s political history from the 1970s to the present. In the wake of heightened political polarization during the past six years of the Duterte administration, the polls also imply a judgment of the value of human rights and democratic freedoms among a populace disillusioned by promises of liberal democracy and marked by widening inequalities of wealth and opportunity. The 2022 elections also presented a historic opportunity to influence the country’s immediate future, as issues of climate change and possibilities of decarbonization have been pushed to the fore of national debates for the first time.

The Terrain of Climate Justice

The idea of putting together a climate justice movement in the Philippines began to percolate as early as 2007, although its precursors were debating the concept of climate justice as early as 2000 when the first Climate Justice Summit was held at the Hague. In the Philippines, it was mostly led by organizations who were aware of the heightened vulnerability of countries like the Philippines and at the same time cognizant of the politics of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP), particularly COP 13 in 2007 in Bali. It was at COP 13 that the global coalition Climate Justice Now! joined by organizations from developing countries including the Philippines, was founded.

Several similar formations have also taken shape in the wake of these movements. Organizations in the Philippines have also started to take up the call for climate justice, especially those who are particularly campaigning for the polluter countries to take responsibility for their ecological and climate debts. Main drivers of these calls include, but are definitely not limited to the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice,, the Asian Peoples’ Movement for Debt and Development, and Greenpeace.

Even more so, environmental organizations have started disseminating the call for climate justice more generally, especially those who call for accountability in light of the landmark Paris Agreement in 2015 and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°.

In 2016, Duterte ran on an “anti-oligarchy”, “anti-mining” platform that, however, quickly reversed course. Early in his term, Duterte appointed a known radical environmentalist and then ABS-CBN Foundation Chairperson Gina Lopez as the Environment Secretary in an effort to maintain campaign promises made to the Makabayan bloc, the largest national democratic formation in the Philippines.

Lopez led the environment department towards a hard-line stance on mining. Once in office she headed a massive audit of all mining operations in the country. The Department cancelled the approval of 75 proposed mines in watershed areas, ordered the closure of 26 mines for environmental violations, and suspended five other contracts under her tenure as Secretary.

However, much like Duterte’s other promises, such as ending contractualization and resuming peace talks, this development was short-lived. A little over a year into Lopez’s term, the congressional Commission on Appointments overturned her appointment amid controversy and allegations of incompetence. Eight out of 24 senators voted for her confirmation, while the other 16 voted against.

Duterte’s veneer of progressiveness on environmental issues soon lifted after appointing and confirming Philippine Military Academy graduate Roy Cimatu as environment Secretary. Cimatu has been embroiled in several issues, one of which was the highly controversial Kaliwa Dam project for its onerous loan agreement and its adverse environmental effects on the Sierra Madre mountain range. Duterte then eventually lifted the moratorium on new mining permits in 2021, fulfilling none of the promises to protect the environment he had made in 2016.

Who Did the Climate Movement Back?

Alyansa Tigil Mina (ATM), an alliance of mining-affected communities and their support groups and civil society organizations who are opposing the aggressive promotion of large-scale mining in the Philippines, support 12 Senate candidates. They are: Senators Risa Hontiveros, Leila De Lima, and Joel Villanueva, Representative Teddy Baguilat, attorneys Chel Diokno, Neri Colmenares, Luke Espiritu, and Sonny Matula, along with Alex Lacson, David D’Angelo, Roy Cabonegro, and Antonio Trillanes. ATM also endorsed Leni Roredo and Kiko Pangilinan for the positions of president and vice president, respectively.

Aside from ATM, other groups like Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE), Living Laudato Si, and Greenpeace Philippines released several scorecards assessing the track records of presidential and vice-presidential candidates

Environmental organizations under the Panatang Luntian coalition, led by Kalikasan PNE, launched the #EnvibeCheck, a fact-checking study conducted to assess the positions and track records of candidates on Philippine environmental concerns. In that study, Robredo was rated the greenest president with positive statements and track records across the six themes and notably the only presidential candidate with affirmative action on biodiversity conservation, while former Senator Bongbong Marcos Jr. was rated the dirtiest, with negative marks across the board.

Senator Kiko Pangilinan and Professor Walden Bello were tied as the greenest vice-president candidates with full positive marks, while former Environment Secretary Lito Atienza was rated the dirtiest with a net rating of negative four (-4) marks.

On 23 April, in what was dubbed #PinkEarthDay, a Luntian De Avance rally was help in Manila proclaiming Robredo and Pangilinan as the greenest contenders in the May 2022 elections. “We did an in-depth review of all national candidates’ track records, including public pronouncements. For us here, VP Leni and Sen. Kiko remained consistent in environmental plan”, said Leon Dulce, national coordinator for Kalikasan-PNE and one of the organizers of the Luntian de Avance.

Living Laudato Si was among the groups that have previously declared a “Pro-Filipino Climate and Environment Agenda.” They were joined by the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice, Greenresearch, and Caritas Philippines. Over 150 organizations signed on to the agenda. It urged the electorate to support candidates like Robredo-Pangilinan and De Guzman-Bellow who were for a pro-environment development path during the next six years.

The climate justice movement in this election mostly remained non-partisan, with some exceptions mentioned above. This choice is deliberate: the fight for climate justice, especially on the local level, requires the broadest possible united front. In a regime where environmental defenders are regularly attacked and killed, unity is a matter of life and death.

Climate Justice in the 2022 Elections

Given these developments and for a country like the Philippines that is especially vulnerable to climate impacts, various groups were hoping that platforms against climate change would take centre stage, or at least be one highlight among others of the electoral campaigns of the different candidates. Disappointingly, very few candidates highlighted the issue. Only about six of the candidates running for national office had clear positions on climate.

By highlighting climate action as a centrepiece of his platform, Leody de Guzman was the only presidential candidate to actively put the conversation about climate justice on the agenda. He emphasized the need to declare a climate emergency and undertake an immediate overhaul of the energy matrix of the Philippines by shifting to clean, renewable, and non-nuclear energy sources.

Presidential candidate Vice President Leni Robredo also addressed the climate crisis, but less ambitiously than de Guzman. In her platform, she emphasized the creation of a “climate industry.” Her emphasis in addressing the climate crisis was centred on creating “green jobs” and investing in climate-resilient structures. She criticized the short-sightedness of the current government response to the climate crisis by attacking the myopic view that all there is to do in addressing our vulnerabilities is through relief and aid efforts. The frontrunner, Marcos Jr., aimed to address the energy crisis by reviving the nuclear power plant project in the Philippines.

The Senate candidates for the May 2022 elections also had their fair share of environmentalists. Among these was noted former Senator-turned-Congresswoman Loren Legarda. She had been wanting to prioritize funding bills for a swift transition to renewables and to support other existing environmental laws, like the Clean Air Act, Ecological Solid Waste Management Act, and Renewable Energy Act. While in Congress as a deputy speaker, she drafted along with Climate Change Committee head Edgar Chatto, Bayan Muna Partylist’s Eufemia Cullamat, and the late Cebu City Rep. Raul del Mar a congress resolution declaring a climate emergency.

Luke Espiritu, who is part of Leody De Guzman’s slate under PLM, has put forward a five-point agenda on addressing the energy crisis, involving a fossil-fuel phase-out, a shift to a low-carbon economy, energy democracy, a just transition, and active government intervention. Espiritu’s slatemates David D’Angelo and Roy Cabonegro also brought a climate-responsive agenda to the table. D’Angelo called for the declaration of a climate emergency, new and alternative minerals management, green and affordable energy, organic farming, and food sovereignty. Cabonegro called for cuts to carbon emissions in line with the global climate justice movement’s calls to phase out coal by 2030 and a 100 percent shift to non-nuclear renewable energy by 2040. Rep. Teddy Baguilat, who ran on Vice President Leni Robredo’s ticket, is also a noted environmentalist since his stint as governor of Ifugao and a representative of Ifugao in the lower house. He is for clean energy (solar, wind) and for the banning of open pit mining.

While a lot of these candidates can be considered environmentalists, their positions on climate justice are quite inadequate. Aside from the Green Party candidates (Cabonegro and D’angelo) and the PLM slate (De Guzman and Espiritu), no candidate articulated the need to address the specific problem of vulnerable countries in relation the ecological and climate debt of polluter countries.

This is quite problematic, as the incoming administration will get to craft emissions-reduction ambitions as per the Paris Agreement, and play a role at COP negotiations. This is especially important at a time when developments like the Santiago Network and the negotiations on financing the loss and damage suffered by vulnerable countries are at stake. The Philippines’ participation in the global fight for climate justice hinges on how seriously the new administration is going to tackle the climate crisis.

Competing Narratives of Continuity and Change

In 2016, Rodrigo Duterte ran for president with the slogan “Change is coming.” He vowed to eradicate criminality and corruption in as little as three months if elected and presented himself as a crusader against oligarchs in the mining sector early in his term.

During his term, Duterte embarked on two “wars”. Earlier on, he waged a so-called “War on Drugs” whose mortality count prompted a full-scale investigation by the International Criminal Court. More recently, Duterte has shifted to intensifying the Philippines’ longstanding anti-insurgency campaign, declaring a “War on Communism” on all fronts with the passage of an Anti-Terror Law and the establishment of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) whose presence in local communities, according to human rights defenders, is associated with a higher incidence of human rights violations. Environmental defenders and indigenous communities fighting against land grabbing by agribusiness and mining corporations have also been under threat, as killings were recorded to have doubled during Duterte’s term.

In this year’s elections, Duterte refused to formally endorse a presidential candidate. But not only has he played an active role in the restoration by allowing the elder Marcos to be buried in the country’s heroes’ cemetery early in his term, the politics embodied in Dutertismo has outgrown the man himself. Marcos Jr.’s campaign is heavily laden with a message of “unification” that, while kept purposefully vague, indicates that the maintenance of institutional continuity is an objective, as a majority of candidates running under Marcos’ banner have formerly been Duterte’s appointed officials and allies. In fact, it is not uncommon for campaign speeches and propaganda by Marcos’s supporters to associate Duterte’s mega-infrastructure program with the supposed “Golden Age of Infrastructure” initiated by the late dictator.

This should not be a surprising choice given the steady persistence of Duterte’s popularity, despite the repression, corruption scandals, and failed pandemic response measures under his rule. Prior to the official filing of candidacy, opinion polls heavily favoured Sara Duterte to succeed her father’s presidency in June 2021, doubling even the preference for Marcos Jr. Strikingly, this mirrors the stability of the incumbent president’s satisfaction ratings at 75% in the same time period. Another candidate riding on the wave of Duterte’s popularity is Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso, Mayor of the City of Manila, who has proudly deployed anti-criminality and local infrastructure development programs with the same heavy-handed tenor.

In opposition to the electoral agenda of continuity were two campaigns centred on change.

The campaign of Vice President Leni Robredo, chairperson of the country’s Liberal Party, aimed to distinguish itself from the current administration through an anti-poverty and development platform with “good governance” as its pillar. Robredo was formerly a legislator for the province of Camarines Sur, where Naga City is hailed as a model of participatory democracy, characterized by an active citizenry involved in local community councils and bottom-up budgeting under the mayoralty of Robredo’s late husband and former Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Jesse Robredo. Vice President Robredo promised to build on these participatory initiatives and strengthen the partnership between the private and public sector in infrastructure development and social services.

Marking a historic first in Philippine electoral politics was the candidacy of socialist labour leader Leody de Guzman, running under Partido Lakas ng Masa and Laban ng Masa, an electoral coalition of democratic socialist forces from various Left formations. Anchored in a rejection of elite democracy and patronage politics, De Guzman’s campaign emphasized the urgency of reducing inequality through progressive proposals such as wealth taxes, provision of socialized housing, and democratic public ownership of social services.

Recognizing that the majority of the Filipino population belongs to the working class, the campaign also put workers’ empowerment first by vowing to improve their material conditions and ensuring democratic spaces for unionization and workers’ political participation. Going against the grain in a predominantly Catholic populace, De Guzman was also the first candidate to endorse full marriage equality, the decriminalization of abortion, and the legalization of divorce.

While both Robredo and De Guzman envisioned a “new politics” for the Philippines, support for these goals failed to translate to polling numbers, with neither candidate breaking Marcos Jr.’s lead. Despite running as an independent candidate, Robredo struggled to break away from the legacy of elite and exclusionary rule associated with the Liberal Party in the post-EDSA configuration. In November, Robredo signed a pact with workers’ groups to advance a labour agenda, but no further efforts were made to place specific policy proposals at the forefront of her electoral platform. Nevertheless, Robredo was able to secure the endorsement of the social democratic and national democratic Left blocs, who saw in her the chance to prevent a Marcos Jr. presidency and restore democratic freedoms.

Limited popular support for the De Guzman campaign reflects the limitations of the expansion and political consolidation of the Philippine labour movement. The latest estimates suggest that only 10 percent of the labour force belongs to unions, down from 25 percent in the 1990s. Some factors that led to this sharp decline include anti-union industrial policy on the national and local levels and heightened repression of union rights, especially during the Duterte administration. This general fragility of De Guzman’s union base put constraints on the campaign’s capacities to solicit resources and engage in popular mobilization.

The Changing Balance of Forces

The broad appeal of Marcos Jr. stems largely from two sources: the residual support for the Duterte administration, as evidenced by pro-administration candidates’ sweep in the 2019 Senate elections, and the manufactured rehabilitation of the Marcos family name. Systematic efforts to distort factual narratives about martial law under Marcos Sr. have been underway since the 1990s, a feat accelerated by data-driven campaigns to rebrand the Marcos family image on social media. Incidentally, no comprehensive programme for transitional justice transpired after Marcos Sr.’s ouster. The post-EDSA institutional configuration also allowed members of the family to reclaim seats in public office since 1986.

Interestingly, critiques of post-EDSA deindustrialization, privatization, and trade liberalization were also incorporated in the disinformation campaigns in support of Marcos Jr., in a conscious effort to paint Robredo as the candidate who was only set to reproduce neoliberal economic programs and fiscal austerity, known legacies of the Liberal Party in the Philippines. This is the image that Robredo struggled to break, with no direct rebuttals to these claims in keeping with her promise for a “win-win situation” for both the capitalist and working classes.

The First 100 Days of a Marcos Presidency

Unlike the other presidential candidates, Marcos Jr. did not express — and continues to remain silent on — any coherent programme of government. What the country instead heard were his repeated calls for “unity”, even to the point of appropriating the word to constitute the Marcos Jr.-Duterte tandem as “Uniteam”.

Given that he has not articulated a coherent platform, it is extremely difficult to envisage what a Marcos Jr. administration could look like. What leadership philosophy will he espouse (compared to VP Leni’s transparency and governance of the margins)? What programmes will he push for? What are his legislative priorities? To add to the difficulty, Marcos Jr. has made it his campaign policy to avoid debates at all costs (except for those broadcast by networks that lean in his favour).

Unity does not answer any of these questions. In fact, what he means by unity may be starkly different to the unity that is meant by Filipinos who support him. Is it an authoritarian view of unity, where dissent is dispelled? Or is it an inclusive view of unity with solidarity at its core? We do not know, and this tells us a lot about the 100 days that would follow with Marcos Jr. at the top.

A Marcos Jr. victory would immediately make headlines in all major news organizations worldwide. “36 years on, son of ousted Philippine dictator reclaims the presidency.” This would shock the world, if a country that suffered so much under the rule of the dictator Marcos Sr. and his cronies for more than 20 years, with thousands jailed, tortured, disappeared, and left in poverty gave the reins of power back to the same family.

A Marcos Jr. victory would also demonstrate that someone who is sinister enough can get away with twisting facts and exercising lordship over the truth for their own benefit. Rebranding, sanitization, and revisionism would have been shown to be what it takes to win the presidency. This would only prove true what our very own Nobel Peace laureate Maria Ressa has said about the dangers and threats that democracy faces.

A Marcos Jr. victory would be a regression in Philippine politics — to trapo or traditional politics. Despite having alternatives — viable alternatives in fact — it is simply devastating to see that the Marcoses have managed to reclaim Malacañan Palace. Expect this effect to reverberate throughout local politics, where trapos will be encouraged once again, and the new brands of leadership will experience setbacks.

Without a clear platform, it is difficult to envision at this point what Marcos Jr. could achieve to solve pressing societal issues, a few of which are briefly discussed below. Certainly the first 100 days, in fact the full six-year term, of a Marcos presidency will be tumultuous.

The Silver Lining of the 2022 Elections

Despite the looming threat of a Marcos presidency, there is a silver lining: the 2022 elections have proven to be an encouraging renewal of grassroots-led political participation. Social movements and organizations representing marginalized sectors actively mobilized to bolster the campaigns of Vice President Leni Robredo and socialist labour leader Leody de Guzman. In that sense, a Robredo presidency would also have been stormy, but it would surely have provided unique opportunities to advance human rights and democracy, including climate justice.

Robredo’s campaign was dubbed a “People’s Campaign” for attracting mammoth crowds averaging at least 75,000 in cities all over the Philippines. It successfully assembled an astonishingly broad coalition of democratic forces, from the most progressive and militant organizations to those whose politics are conservative such as the business community and even personalities identified with the police and military. It employed strategies from local political parties and civil society organizations to expand its voting base. These efforts, which gained a lot of momentum in only a few months, are an unprecedented phenomenon in the face of Duterte’s demobilizing impact on civil society during his term.

With the possibility of further constricting democratic spaces, prospects are good that these forces can be consolidated into a broad opposition to Marcos Jr. and expanding the support base of climate justice movements. The big rallies of Robredo and the gains made by the De Guzman-Bello ticket are an indication of the kind of opposition that can be mounted if a Marcos Jr. turns out to be as bad or even worse than expected.

In sum, the prospects for expanding and advancing the work on climate justice would have been better if Robredo had won, but the Marcos victory can also provide good opportunities if the forces behind the Robredo and De Guzman campaigns find common ground in the face of a Marcos Jr. government.

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