It is more than a month after Ompong. Life has returned to normal for this city’s thirteen million residents, despite the trail of destruction left in the north. In the concrete maze known as Metro Manila, where many can calmly live to share their tales of a typhoon, the city sets in motion its ritual – families patiently sweep aside fallen debris, students return to class, and the religious few pray their thanks that they have been spared. It is the same ritual every time.
544 kilometers away from the capital, a different story unfolds in Baggao, Tuguegarao City. A ritual begins for those who return to what was once their home, where pieces of broken metal and rotting wood provide evidence of what has been swept away. Amid the fallen carpet of debris, a lifeless body is sometimes found then carried away. When Filipino resilience inspires more faith than sound environmental policy, sons and daughters must pick up whatever pieces they find and begin again.
When an average of twenty storms visits the Philippine Area of Responsibility annually, bad weather is as natural a phenomenon as bureaucratic inefficiency, unintelligent urban design, and a national disaster council whose most active line of defense against torrential rain is SMS. In some places, such as Ilocos Sur, evacuation centers are less than a hundred meters away from the shoreline, prompting many to perilously brace themselves for the impact. This is the state of environmental policy against the changing climate – the most vulnerable perish as the government reacts to save as many lives as possible once the storm has hit, while the rest find comfort in their shelter, having already won the lottery of birth.
That weather is becoming more extreme reveals only a partial dimension of the reality of climate change. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released on October 8 its latest report, which issued “nightmarish” warnings about what would happen should temperatures rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times. It spoke of “permanent inundation” for ten million people, diseases such as malaria becoming more widespread, increasing food shortage, and the “death of unique ecosystems” if carbon continues to accumulate in the atmosphere. Seeing this number for the first time may lead someone to think 1.5 degrees is such a miniscule, immaterial number, but it represents a world of difference between safety and catastrophe.
The report was written by ninety-one authors from forty different countries, representing a global consensus in thirty-three pages of text intended for policymakers. The warnings demand radical changes be done. Governments and private business must implement “sweeping, unprecedented changes” such as coordinating a program of re-industrialization to severely limit reliance on fossil fuels and increase dependence on renewable energy. The main takeaway from the report is that we may have as little as 12 years to act, lest future generations suffer the consequences described above.
There’s a lot to take from it, as a quick glance of the pages would intimidate almost anyone. However, the idea that climate change is resulting in disastrous consequences on humanity is hardly new. This fact has been known to us ever since we were little, reinforced to us by our teachers and parents who taught of the need to “protect the environment.” Even large, private firms have begun to adopt socially-conscious marketing with defense of the environment as their main ploy. The problem with this is that it becomes difficult to sustain sound environmental decision-making when sometimes we can successfully distance ourselves from the reality of climate change.
One of the habits of modern life is our ability to distance ourselves from the simple truths of our own existence. We love our rice, yet we’re unsure of whether the rice we’re eating was grown locally or imported. We’re unaware where the plastic we throw away ends up. On the busy streets of the city, we sit comfortably in our air-conditioned vehicles, while those outside feel the burn of diesel smoke in their lungs. Rising temperatures is a mild inconvenience, food insecurity a distant reality. Although a changing climate represents a changing paradigm, the biggest challenge remains – communicating the consequences of our individual decision-making, and how best to confront the impact of one’s own choices.
This has become apparent with the way extreme weather is often described. In its aftermath, it’s often unclear who to blame; while inept policymakers seem the obvious choice, environmental catastrophes are often described as living entities hellbent on our destruction. They “terrorize,” “harass,” and “besiege” cities raw. Environmental catastrophe isn’t worsened by our own doing; a malevolent force of nature is primarily to blame, a scapegoat to absolve our guilt.
The scenes from the report aren’t biblical prophecies nor scenes from a Hollywood disaster movie, though we must certainly restrain ourselves to avoid thinking they are so. Twelve years can pass by quickly, and we are no better off thinking we can postpone action into some distant period of the future. Unless the warnings are communicated in a way that an ordinary person can fully understand, temperatures will continue to rise as people fail to accept the changing environmental paradigm.