I have a guilty aversion to news about climate change. Knowing that at least one species die every hour because of man-made destruction of natural habitats, or seeing the point-of-no-return-from-catastrophic-environmental-damage inch in closer and closer, is honestly really terrifying. And because positive news has become so rare, when the Paris Climate Agreement was announced, I hesitated to find out more. Something would go wrong here, my gut told me. Sure enough, the Philippine president did not disappoint my gut.
Unsurprisingly, Duterte refused to ratify the Paris Climate Agreement. But his misgivings on the Agreement were, for once, pretty well thought out. The Agreement leg ally bound State-Parties to set limits to their greenhouse emissions and he is worried that there were no enforcement mechanisms to stop larger States from reneging on the deal–a legitimate concern given that the second largest producer of greenhouse gases, the United States of America, pulled out of the deal. After all, large developed countries still contribute the most to greenhouse gases, so they have an interest to skirt legal limits.
Moreover, the President believed that developing nations needed to be able to industrialize in order to develop, and that required the ability to pollute. The Industrial Revolution made Great Britain a world economic power, but it led to an absolutely horrific level of pollution in London. People would get sick by breathing in the stench and fumes of the Thames River (sounds familiar?). Why should a small nation like ours not be allowed to do what Western countries were able to do centuries ago?
We relented, nonetheless, eventually agreeing to ratify the Agreement, and binding us to its commitments. The concerns raised, though, are still valid–was it right for us to agree to this when so many Filipinos are poor? Did we just sign away our ability to exploit our natural resources to achieve the same level of economic growth as those before us? There is an interesting parallel between how developing countries tend to look at climate change and how individuals do.
Why do I have a responsibility to change my life when I am such a small part of the problem? One person’s waste surely do not make much of a difference at all. So many other people are taking advantage of the environment, and benefiting from avoiding the inconvenience: driving everywhere instead of carpooling, not worrying about segregating trash, eating meat, so why can’t I? Even if I individually tried to change my lifestyle, other people will probably never change theirs, and continue to harm the environment whatever I do.
These problems are at the heart of why it has been difficult until this point to get people to agree to fight climate change. Perhaps it is important to recognize that individual duty and responsibility may not be the best tools to address climate change from the perspective of smaller actors. Whether it be people or developing countries, the objections to actions on climate change will always seem valid. But that is only true because we continue to see ourselves and our self-interests as separate from that of our communities. These arguments and misgivings I have discussed all assume people cannot work together, and that they can never recognize shared harms. Climate change will definitely get worse and people, especially the poor, will suffer more if people continue to contribute to it. If our individualistic mode of thinking is responsible for this, perhaps that is what we should focus on addressing. This is the cynic’s view of the collective action problem: we ought to believe what will make us act against climate change. Put another way, “kung gusto, palaging mayroong paraan.” There are objections to raise and questions to ask about any sacrifice we make for the environment, but if asking them leads to inaction, maybe we should choose to believe what allows us to act for the greater good. In this case, that means choosing to believe that we can set examples for our peers, that our actions make a difference, and that the world is worth saving.
The Paris Climate Agreement itself might provide a model for ourselves, too. The Agreement allows for countries to determine their own commitments, meaning that we have control over the level of development we are going to sacrifice for greenhouse gas reduction. The fact that the Paris Climate Agreement used this model made it by far the most widely-adopted climate convention in history. What the Paris meeting showed is that we can, in fact, work together for our shared interests, as long as we are given the freedom to decide on our own what to give up for the greater good. And if the President can manage to do that, I think the rest of us have got a shot. I might even allow a little hope for some good news.