September - December 2007
Power and poisons

Starting a ‘clean’ revolution

AT NO other time has the science of climate change been more robust than today. At no other time, too, have the impacts of climate change become more apparent and deadly, particularly for vulnerable and developing countries such as the Philippines.

These circumstances have brought about a shift in the discussion on climate change — from the realm of scientists, the academe, and policy makers, it is now taking place in the public arena. A new challenge for Greenpeace and other environmental groups is to make sure that the Filipino public is engaged and heed the warning against the dangers of climate change.

But how does one simplify the science of climate change while making sure that Filipinos don’t see it as trivial and of less importance to other raging issues? How does one educate people about this phenomenon to the point that they will rise into action? In a country troubled by pressing socioeconomic concerns such as poverty and armed struggle, how does one make an entire nation realize that if not addressed urgently, climate change has catastrophic consequences both to the Philippines and to the rest of the world?

As a green activist, these questions guide me in engaging the different sectors of our society — from the youth to school teachers, from professionals to homemakers, from the common Pinoy to our national government — about climate change. Although the task sounds simple, it is actually daunting. Similar to each region’s creativity and resourcefulness in cooking the perfect adobo, I have to develop new and innovative tools in presenting the climate change story to suit each Pinoy’s palate. And with the barrage of information practically thrown at people by television, radio, newspapers, and even billboards, it is a constant challenge for me to elevate the issue from the noise.

Frankly, were I not part of Greenpeace, I would be having a hard time understanding climate change as well, and its relevance in my life. But I was exposed to Greenpeace early — in high school, in fact, when I read about the organization and its anti-whaling campaign in National Geographic. I remember being amazed on how passionate the activists were in voicing out their beliefs.

But I didn’t have the chance to get involved with Greenpeace until 1999, when I was already in college. Some friends of mine asked me if I want to help out during Greenpeace’s Toxics Free Asia Tour. I said yes! I tried to help out in any way I could, from printing shirts to guiding fellow students during the Rainbow Warrior open-boat days, to making sure my fellow volunteers had food during lunch. I became more involved in the group after graduation, helping organize public events, participating in actions, becoming a member of SolarGeneration (a youth group initiated by Greenpeace) and an activist. Today I’m the Climate & Energy Campaigner of Greenpeace Southeast Asia based in the Philippines.

OUR RAPID response team has borne witness and documented impacts of extreme weather events in the country, such as the 2004 drought in South Cotabato that affected almost 800,000 families in Mindanao, to the aftermath of typhoon Reming in the Bicol Region last December. These tragedies have resulted in the loss of lives and livelihood, as well as in the destruction of infrastructure. They have also amplified the lack of food and water and other basic services that majority of Filipinos suffer in provinces with high poverty incidence ratings.

The Philippines is a climate hotspot. As a developing country, with very little access to vital resources, it has a low ability to adapt and an even lower ability to cope with disasters brought about by the impacts of climate change. Yet, even with the emerging trends of climate variability, many provinces in the Philippines are still not aware of their vulnerability; much less are they able to prepare to cope with its impacts.

The amount of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide that humans have released since the Industrial Revolution has drastically altered the natural processes of our planet including the climate. Human-induced climate change was brought about by different sectors and activities such as deforestation, unsustainable agricultural practices, and improper waste management. But the biggest culprit of all has been the energy sector.

Almost 70 percent of the Philippines’ energy mix comes from power plants that burn fossil fuel such as coal — the most carbon intensive and polluting power source. Less than one percent of our energy comes from solar and wind power. Greenpeace has conducted a series of tests on the ash fields of coal-fired power stations in the Philippines, including the biggest in Sual, Pangasinan and the dirtiest in Calaca, Batangas. The results revealed the insidious presence in the coal plant waste stream of hazardous substances such as mercury (a deadly neurotoxin) and arsenic (a known carcinogen), and raised the possibility of widespread toxic contamination in host and neighbouring communities.

Aside from the toxins, a coal-fired power plant like the 1,200-megawatt one in Sual will, for the duration of its 25-year contract, produce 238.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to more than 575.6 billion jeepneys simultaneously starting and traveling for a kilometer.

Although the government is well aware of these, it remains largely dependent on coal for its energy source. To us, it is clear that the well-being of Filipinos is being sacrificed by the government, which is also fueling climate change by expanding existing and building new coal-fired power stations in the country.

Of course, I’m no Al Gore. I don’t have his gravitas, and I can guess what people are probably thinking when they see someone as young as I am trying to talk to them about something that seems so complex. But I stand up and say what I have to say anyway, because I know if I do it right, they will cease to see the young woman before them and they will listen.

Fortunately, I don’t have to rely only on myself to convince people. Images, video footage, and maps have proven to be an effective tool in awakening Pinoys on the gravity of the situation.

Using the geographic information system (GIS), Greenpeace has mapped out areas in the Philippines that are under threat to sea-level rise because of climate change. As an archipelago with a coastline almost equal to the circumference of the earth, there is only one region in the Philippines not threatened by ocean water encroaching dry land: the Cordillera Administrative Region. This translates to displacement of families and damage to ecosystems such as beaches, mangroves, and coral reefs that are valued for its conservation efforts and tourism potential.

THE GREENPEACE sea level-rise maps have made it easier for people to understand what I am talking about when I do my spiels on climate change. These have also become part of our “Simple Lang, Save the Planet” campaign, which strives to educate and empower Pinoys from different walks of life to be part of the solution.

The campaign combines public outreach (school, village, and office tours), media (television commercials, print ads, and radio spiels) and new media (online petition and email groups) to introduce and amplify energy consciousness in Filipinos.

We also employ volunteers whom we call Climate Communicators for tours and exhibits. These volunteers include celebrities, students, architects, teachers, bankers, and homemakers. Each of them has gone beyond unplugging or switching off lights to reduce energy consumption and are now helping spread the word to the rest of the Philippines. Which is essentially this: A fundamental change in the way the world uses energy must take place within this decade in order to make a real difference in the fight to save the climate. To avert the worst impacts of climate change, the world must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2050.

This is possible through an energy revolution, which requires a massive uptake of renewable energy combined with aggressive energy efficiency measures. An energy revolution will drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions emitted in the atmosphere and pave the way for cleaner energy that ensures our country’s energy security and independence as well as a safe environment and future for everyone.

Now all that can leave a newcomer to green issues going, huh? Actually, when we began designing the campaign, we started with the premise that each person has his or her own reason for supporting any advocacy or initiative. So we developed climate-change talking points based on what we think will grab our audience’s attention. For example, for the youth, we emphasize that the impacts that we are now experiencing is but the onset of climate change. Which, if not mitigated, will have the younger generation bearing the effects of more severe impacts. This is an injustice that the youth should not allow, especially if the decision makers of the present can do something about it.

For parents, we point out that the future generation, including their children, will bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change if nothing is done about it now. But we are also careful to note that helping the environment will not have only future benefits, but can have profound impacts in the present. Turning energy conscious and becoming efficient in the use of energy, for instance, may mean lower power bills.

For school administrators, we tell them that electricity savings can result to the reallocation of resources to purchasing of books, improvement of facilities, salaries of faculty, and maintenance. We also tell them that our materials can be used for a public awareness campaign or can be included in the curriculum.

For older audience, we ask them how it was before compared to the present. Is it hotter now? Is there a change in storm patterns or severity? And finally for legislators or local government units, we note that landmark policies and initiatives on climate change adaptation and mitigation are legacies that will be remembered by their constituents.

HONESTLY, IF some people drink coffee to jolt them from an uneventful afternoon or chocolate to satisfy their sweet tooth, I need to engage with the youth from time to time to keep my creative juices flowing and to shed the cynicism I sometimes feel when talking to a politician.

Leadership and political will from our legislators can go a long way in the fight for our basic right to live in a clean and healthy environment. But the reality is, it is not often that one comes across lawmakers who have these qualities. As a result, policies that are supposed to safeguard the environment and the health of the Filipino people are sometimes sat on (like the Renewable Energy Bill that has been pending for almost 12 years now) or are so diluted that they become ineffective. There have been legislators who have supported certain initiatives of Greenpeace, but it is a constant struggle to keep them involved and engaged.

It has also been a challenge to lure ordinary people into discussions about climate change. And it doesn’t even matter if you’re talking to an urban or rural audience. Urban areas, although more up to date to what’s happening globally, have such fast-paced lifestyles that you need to jolt people harder so that they would take notice of you. Urbanites are bombarded with information that campaigners have to make sure that the issue is not drowned out by all the noise. In the rural areas, meanwhile, the challenges beyond the language gaps include competing with concerns like where dinner for that day is going to come from (if any is coming at all), land tenure, and armed conflict. Provincial communities have to be reminded that climate change impacts will aggravate these concerns.

Yet there have been instances where members of remote communities have left me with much hope. Once, I was invited to facilitate a basic discussion on climate change to members of the Youth Advocates for Peace (YAP) in Mindanao. I saw how much they value their culture, heritage, and the environment. These aspects are clearly integrated with who they are and what they believe in. Some of them live in impoverished communities or are caught in the middle of an armed struggle. But this does not limit them from taking a stand for their future and making a difference. The older generation, especially our government officials, can definitely learn from them.

At the very least, I came away from that event inspired, energized, and even more at peace with the career I have chosen for myself. With Greenpeace, I need not compromise my passion, beliefs, and my future, unlike many of my peers. Greenpeace strengthened how I see my place in this planet — that I am part of my environment and that whatever I do to this only home that we have will eventually affect me and the ones I care about.

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