Legislation and Climate Change in the Philippines

(delivered by GWP Rep. Luz C. Ilagan for the forum ‘Lessons for Community-based Initiatives’
on November 7, 2014 at Bahay Kalinaw, University of the Philippines)

To give meaning to the theme assigned to this speaker, my paper would deal with the following points:

• In terms of legislation, have we done what should be done to mitigate and adapt to climate change?
• And again, in terms of legislation, have we dealt with climate change in accordance with the existing social and material conditions of the country?

I chose these two points as the main threads of my paper because when I made some research so I may have something substantive to say in this forum, I stumbled on several articles, both foreign and local, that highly praised the country for having one of the best legislations on climate change. The legislative works often cited for these high praises are the Republic Act 9729 (as amended), the law which placed climate change on the policy agenda of the government and created the Climate Change Commission; and also the Republic Act 10121 which, following the paradigm shift in the United Nations on disaster response, adopted disaster risk reduction and management in the country and created the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. The international community has also praised the country for enacting the National Integrated Protected Areas System, Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Recently, the United Nations cited the country for having crafted an exemplary REDD (reduction of emission from deforestation and forest degradation) policy strategy.

Praises can either lead to two things. It can inspire to do more and to do better. Or it can lead to official self-congratulation and bring our officialdom down the slope of complacency and policy inertia. Worse, it can blind us from the more meaningful reforms that we ought but failed to do.

It must be noted that most of the laws on climate change that we have passed are in compliance with UN-approved framework and protocols on environment conservation and protection, carbon emission reduction, disaster risk reduction, and climate change adaptation. As a member of the World Meteorological Organization of the United Nations and as an active participant of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, we are signatory to the various protocols that emanated from the UN Framework, such as the Montreal Protocol, the Kyoto Protocol and the Bali Action Plan. If our climate change legislation is measured on the basis of compliance to such framework and protocols, the country will appear as 100 % compliant.

Complying with the UN framework and protocols is one thing. But whether, in terms of legislation, we have done what should be done for the country to mitigate and adapt to climate change is an entirely different issue.

Tomorrow, November 8, will be the 1st year of Yolanda which left behind along its path record breaking figures on destruction of lives, property and government infrastructure as well as untold sufferings of those who survived its fury. Yolanda is a vicious reminder that climate change is here in our country. It is no longer a threat but a ‘clear and present danger’. We are no longer just vulnerable to climate change. We are already suffering its effects. All this will tell us that we can no longer afford to think and act in terms of ‘business as usual’. Nor can we afford to bask in international commendations and rest on our laurels. For truth be told, we do not have any laurel.

Since we do not have a comprehensive study on the long term effects of climate change on the country, I here make use of the study commissioned by the Asian Development Bank on the effects of climate change on Southeast Asia. The study projects that in the next 50 years, typhoons passing through the region would have more devastating intensity; mean temperatures in the region would rise by 4.8 degrees Celsius, and sea levels would rise by 70 centimeters. In the case of the Philippines, the first projection is already a deadly reality as manifested by Ondoy, Sendong, Pablo and Yolanda. Given the country’s geographical location and geophysical features, the projections name the country as a climate change hot spot. I don’t want to sound being a doomsday scenarist but these projections could only mean more typhoons of the likes of Yolanda, more droughts and more storm surges, floods and landslides. In a word, more lives lost and destruction.

Other studies also cite that being an archipelago, the country would be particularly affected by ocean warming and acidification which will impact on our marine resources from which 10 million people derive their livelihood.

If our legislation and government response are to be measured on these projections, we certainly have not done enough. And with a healthy dose of skepticism, I’m doubtful if we have legislated the right things. For one, climate change is foremost a phenomenon that can best be understood with the aid of the various disciplines of science. Legislation can thus only effectively address the problem, both in the short and long terms, if our legislators are well-informed of and guided by the findings and advances of scientific studies. Unfortunately, we are not giving climate change research the investment and resources it deserves. According to UN standards, governments should give climate change a budget of 2 % of the GDP. But in the last three years, our budget for climate change has been less than 0.5 % of the GDP, way far below the standard. Of this amount, ¾ goes to mitigation programs and only ¼ goes to research. This pattern of budgeting for climate change will remain the same in the 2015 GAA which allocated only P3.8 billion for climate change research as against the originally proposed P5 billion.

Consequently, five years after we enacted the Climate Change Adaptation Act of 2009, we still do not have a comprehensive study on how climate change will impact on our country, particularly on our economy, social fabric and the poor. Last July 2014, on the occasion of the 5th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Philippine counterpart of the IPCC released its first report on climate change. But the report is more of an assessment of climate change as it happened in the country. For findings and projections, it relies on other researches previously made by the IPCC, the World Bank, ADB and other international institutions dealing with climate change on a global or regional setting.

In the absence of comprehensive scientific climate studies that could guide our policy makers, our legislators and executive officials continue to act like everything is okay, like God is on his throne and all is well with the Philippines. I note that in the present Congress, there are only 2 bills about climate change in contrast to the innumerable bills intending to release our forest and mineral lands to full scale exploitation for profit. This is not to mention of the inconsistency of mouthing advocacy for climate change adaptation while pushing for Resolution of Both Houses No. 1 which seeks to amend our constitution in order to paradoxically fully open our economy and national patrimony to more foreign investments - which means more land use conversion, more denudation of our forests, more intrusion of mining firms, more coal-fired power plants and carbon emissions, and more acidification of our oceans and seas.

If we intend our country to achieve climate change mitigation, our legislators and policy makers should do more than legislating adaptation. In fact, under the existing international climate change framework on which we based our policies and laws, adaptation has come to mean adaptation to the use of more coal or adaptation to carbon trading which only commodifies our right to survive the impact of climate change. Here and abroad, growing is the number of scientists, economists and plain social reformers who believe that adaptation will only perpetuate the kind of world order which, in the first place, has been responsible for climate change. They have embraced the rather out-of-the-box notion that climate change not only can be mitigated but can be stopped on its tracks. But to do the latter, this crowd of dreamers say, we must have system change.

Which brings me to the second point I wish to deal in this paper, which is that: in terms of legislation, have we dealt with climate change in accordance with the existing social and material conditions of the country?

Disaster and climate change sociology has long ago established that one, poverty increases vulnerability and two, disasters have greater impact on the poor. Poverty deprives individuals and families the capability to put up defenses, such as building concrete homes, against natural hazards. The poor do not even have the option to move away from the potential sites of disasters. Poverty also leaves the communities and local governments with little resources for disaster preparedness and response.

That disasters have greater impact on the poor was vividly reflected in Leyte right after Yolanda struck. The local government and the weather bureau issued warnings days before but the poor were not able to stock on food or fortify their homes. Many did not vacate their homes because their homes doubled as sari-sari stores or other forms of livelihood, or they simply did not have any other place to go. The poor do not have savings to fall back on after their houses were flattened by strong winds and surging waters. It is hard enough that families lost their homes, they also lost many loved ones and their livelihood.

Disaster vulnerability and poverty mutually reinforce each other. For instance, after being struck by typhoons, the poor usually reconstruct their homes and lives in the very same place where they met the disaster. Because of poverty, the home that was once semi-concrete would be reduced into a shanty. To be able to build a shanty, children are forced to stop schooling and they would grow up to inherit their parents’ poverty.

Despite these advances in the sociological understanding of disasters and the poor, there are many popular misconceptions about disaster vulnerability that often find their way into legislation and decision making on disaster response. For example, in the aftermath of Yolanda, the poor in Leyte who suffered the most casualties and damages were blamed for building their houses near the shorelines. The government, like a reflexive reaction, issued an order that declared the shorelines as ‘no-build zones’. The logic of the ‘no-build zone’ order seems impeccable except that it will remove the poor from the shorelines without removing their vulnerabilities.

The poor do not make the decisions that spell the difference in their lives. A family or an individual decision where to build a home is often dictated by social circumstances such as access to livelihood opportunities, the land market, access to funding facilities, wage level, or government policies on land use and housing. The decisions shaping these circumstances are made by groups, institutions and the state through processes that often exclude the poor.
Now, if disasters have greater impact on the poor, it follows that addressing disaster vulnerability cannot be done by half-way measures nor by programs that treat the poor as the problem. It requires a firm policy of state intervention for the poor and not against the poor.
Having said these, let me point out that majority of our people are poor and they are poor because the productive assets in this country are in the hands of a few big landlords and big businessmen. So if we must mitigate climate change, we must do something about their poverty-effected vulnerability. We must undertake thoroughgoing social reforms that will redistribute our productive assets and create industries that, in turn, will enable our poor to confront their disaster vulnerability. They key word is not dole outs but enabling which sociologists say is the new architecture for disaster response.

Finally, legislation should take the lead in reorganizing the way in which our society produces, distributes and consumes its products, natural wealth and resources. This is not simply a matter of radically departing from reliance on fossil fuels, putting a brake on land use conversion or banning large scale mining and logging. More than that, it calls for changing the dominant elitist consensus regarding what our country needs and how those needs are to be met. Certainly, we cannot attain climate change adaptation if our legislators and policy makers continue pursuing that development model that serves the needs of advanced capitalist countries more than the needs of our people; and in which the motion of society through time and space is measured by how many poor little pigs went to the market.