#COP21: The Glamorous Paris Talks and the Suffering of Filipinos

Counting on Paris: Filipinos and Climate Change. Written by Lian Buan for SubSelfie.com

This is a story of two very different people, bound by an issue that will bring together 147 world leaders in Paris, France — climate change.

Paris, France

Former Philippine Climate Change Commissioner Yeb Saño is in Paris now, having spent the last six months on a pilgrimage that started out in Tacloban and across the world through Vanuatu, Australia, Korea, Thailand, India, Italy and Switzerland.

On November 30 for the United Nations Climate Change Summit, Yeb would not be representing the Philippines. He resigned as Commissioner last April and would be attending plenary meetings in Paris only as an observer. But Yeb believes he can do more now that he’s stripped off his government capacity. We remember Yeb as the crying man during the 2013 summit in Warsaw, Poland.

Supertyphoon Yolanda (Haiyan) had just torn apart Tacloban. His family hails from Leyte but he was halfway across the world and only received updates through footage on Philippine news. A specific video caught his eye: his brother AG tending to dead bodies piling on the streets.

Appealing to leaders in Warsaw, he cried and declared he was going on a hunger strike.

Back in the Philippines, his boss was not happy. In a leaked email to the press, Climate Change Secretary Lucille Sering told Yeb: “I hope you know what you are doing. I am, however, disappointed that you did not heed my request (for you) not to cry. I made this request a day before the opening. I believe you said yes. Kung hindi mo pala kayang ’di umiyak, sana hindi ka na nagsalita.” (If you couldn’t hold back your tears, then you should not have spoken).

More than a year later, Yeb quit government. “I resigned because there is a larger fight against climate change beyond the confines of intergovernmental process. I am frustrated by the slow process in multilateral negotiations,” he said.

Yeb Saño crosses the Alps en route to Paris (Photo from the People’s Pilgrimage)

Quezon Province, Philippines

In an island off Quezon Province in Luzon, Elma Reyes harvests copra in one of the newly-established coconut farms. Alabat, a fifth class municipality and one of the three towns in Alabat Island, is on the process of building industries from scratch, mostly involving coconuts.

Copra, for one, has provided jobs to the likes of Elma. “Kapag may bunga ang niyog may hanapbuhay kami, mag-araw po ako ng 200,” Elma said. (If our coconut trees have fruits, we have livelihood. I would earn up to 200 pesos a day).

Elma used to fish with her husband Eulyses. They live in the fishing village of Villa Norte which is located right beside the Pacific Ocean. Once upon a time, the sea was abundant with fish.

And Elma was contented.

Many scientists believe that climate change has caused our oceans and seas to be warmer. With higher sea temperatures, storms formed become more intense. All these may sound so scientific to Elma but there is another consequence she understands perfectly: there are lesser fish to catch.

Greenpeace Philippines brought experts to Bgy. Villa Norte in Alabat to assess the condition. According to Anna Abad, Climate Justice Campaigner of Greenpeace, they found that fish tend to move to cooler waters or lay eggs in deeper parts of the ocean. Although they recognize other factors such as overfishing from commercial operations, Greenpeace believes that the temperature rise in the sea of Villa Norte has largely contributed to the decrease in fish supply.

Villa Norte’s Captain, Richard Lopez, said that a small boat used to catch 40kg in one trip. But over the last year they have observed they’re only catching around 12kg. Fishing expenses have also gone up. When before they only had to sail 3 kilometers out at sea, now they are finding themselves reaching 15 kilometers from the shore just to catch fish.

They are also spending more money on gasoline for their motor boats and on packed food because there are trips that last for up to more than 24 hours.

Of the 60 families in Villa Norte who earn from fishing, there are twenty families who do not have their own boats. Those who borrow boats have to share their catch.

Depending on the arrangement, a part will go to the boat’s owner, a part will go directly to the fisherman’s family supply, and the rest will be sold. Elma’s husband Eulyses has had to do away with a boat. He swims up to a depth of 15 feet and uses an arrow to catch fish. That way, he doesn’t have to share his catch.

Even with Elma’s earnings from copra, they are only making up to a combined $10 or roughly around 450 pesos every day.

Lately she has been thinking about leaving her husband and two children in the island to work as a domestic helper in Kuwait. “Ayaw ng asawa ko sabi niya dapat ang pamilya sama-sama, pero sa kahirapan naman, no choice,” she said. (My husband disapproves because he believes a family should be together. But poverty leaves us no choice.)

Fishermen in Alabat complain of days when their catch is just enough to pay boat owners and feed their families for the day.
Fishermen in Alabat complain of days when their catch is just enough to pay boat owners and feed their families for the day.

What Numbers Show

Data gathered so far do not look promising for the fishermen of Alabat. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, global sea temperatures rose at an average of  0.13°F per decade, from 1901 to 2014. This upward trend will continue to increase as years pass by.

According to Greenpeace, these changes have made the complicated topic of climate change more understandable to ordinary Filipinos. “Hindi nila nauunawaan na karamihan nito ay gawa ng galing sa ibang bansa at mga kumpanyang nagsusunog ng carbon.” Abad said. (They sometimes don’t understand that these effects were brought by rich nations and companies who burn carbon.)

There is a continuing  demand for accountability from rich nations with the largest cut of the world’s carbon emissions, cited as main culprit for the extreme weather conditions that the planet is experiencing. The Philippines is one of the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change. Super typhoon Haiyan is so far the most prominent reason why; and on record as one of the world’s strongest typhoons in the history of man.

But hat we tend to forget, according to Abad, is that even if there are no calamities, Filipinos feel the effects of climate change without knowing it. The fishermen of Alabat are examples.

The Rise in Global Sea Temperatures. (Grabbed from the EPA website)

People’s Actions

People all over the world have taken matters into their own hands.

In the Netherlands, a Dutch district court ordered the government to take action into further reducing the carbon emissions of their country. In Washington, a group of teenagers won the court’s favor in declaring that their state has a “constitutional obligation” to regulate carbon emissions.

Last September 22, fishermen and farmers of Alabat were among the ordinary Filipinos who marched to the Commission on Human Rights to file a landmark petition demanding accountability from the largest oil companies in the world.

A peer-reviewed research determined these companies as having a lion’s share of carbon emissions. This human rights petition will be the first time in the world that oil companies are directly implicated in the subject of climate change.

Elma was one of the petitioners, and for her, there is no time to be intimidated. “Kung marami naman kayong magsasalita, baka mas pakinggan ka,” Elma said. (If there are many of you speaking, maybe you’ll be heard.)

To some spectators, this is a classic case of David vs Goliath that is only good for its literary value. It sounds noble, romantic even, but can actual results come out of it? This December, CHR agreed to initiate a global investigation into oil companies. They admit it will be an “uphill climb” but they are hoping that they can enforce changes in the system that would force companies to cut their carbon emissions: a way to “erode their social license,” as Greenpeace puts it.

The sea is synonymous to survival for the fishermen of Alabat.

The Show in Paris

Perhaps one of the advantages of leaving the government is that Yeb can now freely speak his mind about what goes on inside the air-conditioned rooms of climate change summits. “Bullying and bilateral pressuring are rampant,” Yeb said, even going as far as calling summits as mirrors of “a geopolitical power play that leaves small and poor nations helpless.”

“It can be as frustrating as spending a whole week just trying to agree on where to put a comma or a semi-colon,” Yeb said. He remembers a time in Warsaw when he clashed heads with the negotiators from power nations such as the USA and Australia.

He was pushing for the loss and damage mechanism to be put on agenda. This provision aims to give poor nations (who feel the effects of climate change) a way to demand compensation from the rich nations assumed to have caused it.

It is a controversial debate because nations claim there is no accurate and scientific way to tell which countries caused which calamities. “I had a tense moment with the US and Australian negotiators because they could not present a sound argument against it and merely said that their capitals cannot approve it,” Yeb said, “they refuse to open their eyes because money keeps them from acknowledging the reality of climate injustice.”

Green Fund

If it were to go his way, Yeb wants a public climate financing of at least $1 trillion per year for developing countries.

In December 2013, we got the chance to sit down with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon who was in the Philippines to inspect Tacloban after Haiyan. One of the things we asked Moon is how we can hold rich countries accountable for what they’ve done to exacerbate climate change. He said they were mobilizing rich countries to give $100 billion per year for developing countries such as the Philippines. “This negotiation is actively now going on. I am taking this as my number one priority,” Moon said.

It is a far cry from Saño’s $1 trillion, but that is the lesser of worries for what is called the “Green Fund.” According to the last update of the Green Climate Fund page of the United Nations Website, only $10.2 billion has been mobilized so far.

It would be easier if there was a legally-binding treaty that would compel nations to oblige. In Paris, they will try again. “We need to get a legally-binding treaty, one that is ambitious and adequate, one that must be robust enough to avert the climate crisis and as such must prevent warming from going beyond 1.5 degree Celsius,” Saño said.

Earlier this month, the UK-based Met Office for Weather and Climate Change announced that the rise in global temperatures this year will exceed 1 degree Celsius for the first time. Scientists say that this is already uncharted territory, and a feared track towards reaching the 2 degree Celsius limit, a mark we must not reach to avoid catastrophic consequences.

The People’s Pilgrimage arrives in France.

Worlds Apart

Since resigning as Commissioner, Yeb has resorted to extrajudicial actions to demand climate justice. Before embarking on the pilgrimage to Paris, he was part of the global movement preventing oil drilling at the Arctic region.

They sailed out to the ocean in protest, and some of his colleagues even boarded without permission a Shell oil rig that was exploring the Alaskan Arctic. Last September, Shell announced it would stop its Arctic explorations. Their official statement said results of their exploration tests were “disappointing” but environmentalists believe that their pressure influenced the decision.

Elma could not do anything remotely close to what Yeb is doing. She is busy looking for jobs in the island. When she’s not harvesting copra, she’s doing other farm labor. On the day I visited, she didn’t even have enough for a motorycle fare from the coconut farm back to her home in Villa Norte. But she hopes that in filing the petition, she has done her part.

This is a story of two very different people.

While Yeb is out in the world trying to save it, Elma is doing all she can so she never has to leave home. In Paris, however, their story will be the same: of people with resiliency stronger than any calamity, but of people who cannot continue paying for the sins they did not commit.

[Entry 110, The SubSelfie Blog]
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared on GMA News Online.

About the Author:

Lian Nami Buan.
Lian Nami Buan is the Managing Director and the European Bureau Chief of SubSelfie.com. She also leads the #SubStory and #TanawMindanao segments of the website. She was a news producer for GMA News for six years before she moved to England to take up her Masters in Digital Journalism at the Goldsmiths, University of London. She wants to shift focus to human rights, particularly indigenous people, women and migration. Whenever she has money, she travels to collect feelings for writing material. Journalism 2010, UST. Read more of her articles here.

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