Wait for ruin or embrace opportunity?

Feature story - October 12, 2005
For all the heated talk about national security in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia, what is curiously missing in the discussions is the one issue that may just define the future well-being - or ruin - of the country and the region.

Greenpeace and scientists are concerned that low lying islands face permanent inundation from rising seas due to climate change.

Some call the issue global warming. Scientists refer to it as climate change. It is the greatest environmental threat facing the planet today and it's only going to get worse unless we embrace the solutions to the problem.

It is impossible to definitively link climate change and any single weather event, including the recent infamous Atlantic hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the devastating typhoons that visited the Philippines this year. Current scientific evidence strongly suggests, however, that hurricanes tend to become more destructive as ocean temperatures rise. An unchecked rise in greenhouse gas concentrations will also very likely increase ocean temperatures further, "ultimately overwhelming any natural oscillations." [1]

Dr. Kerry Emanuel, a hurricane expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was unequivocal when he wrote recently based on his research that ''The large [storm] upswing in the last decade is unprecedented, and probably reflects the effect of global warming.''

Although intense discussion currently surrounds the publication of Emanuel's work, in the end, the answer to what has caused recent destructive typhoons is of little practical value. What we need to address is not what caused Katrina or Rita - or other similar typhoons that have visited the Philippines, for that matter - but the likelihood that global warming will make hurricanes even worse in the future - along with other climatic impacts attributable to rising global temperatures.

There is no lack of evidence that human-induced climate change is underway. The impacts are being felt from Alaska to Florida to sub-Saharan Africa, India, Southeast Asia, China and the melting Russian tundra.

Up to 64 percent of China's glaciers are projected to disappear by 2050, putting at risk up to a quarter of the country's population who are dependent on the water released from those glaciers and raising the possibility of future non-petroleum related resource-conflicts.

Very recently, Thailandwas caught in the grip of a deadly drought which affected 63 of the country's 76 provinces and cost the government $193.2 million in damages."[2] "One of the main causes of the current prolonged drought [in Thailand] is global warming," said the Dr. Kansri Boonpragob, a vice-chairperson of the UN-formed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the foremost global authority on the issue. In the Philippines, studies have projected that crop yields can drop by 10 percent for every 1 degree oC temperature rise. It is a fact that nights in the Philippines are now 2.5 oC warmer than they were 50 years ago.[3]

It was determined by an institute that from the 1970s to the present, the global area affected by drought has doubled due to climate change. Based on research conducted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, the study found widespread drying occurred over much of the world including Asia, and identified rising global temperatures as the major factor for increased drought.[4]

Coral bleaching events in Southeast Asia and the Pacific are set to increase in frequency and intensity if greenhouse gas emissions increase unabated. Corals tend to die in great numbers immediately following coral bleaching events.

Considered as one of the most diverse habitats in the marine tropics, the Philippines is home to 488 coral species out of the 500 known coral species worldwide. Over a third of the 2,300 known fish species in the Philippines are reef-associated.

According to the renowned coral reef expert, Dr. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, untrammeled global warming can spell "catastrophe for tropical marine ecosystems everywhere", with bleaching events "very likely" occurring annually within three decades and events as severe as the 1998 episode possibly becoming commonplace inside twenty years.[5] The 1990s was the warmest decade in recorded history and 1998 was the hottest year of all.

There is more to the current fuel crisis than high oil prices. Since the industrial revolution, massive carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions produced by burning fossil fuels such as coal - the dirtiest fossil fuel - have seriously altered the composition of the planet's atmosphere and trapped the sun's energy, creating increasingly devastating, chaotic weather patterns.

A joint statement signed by 11 of the most distinguished national science academies to world leaders in July gave unequivocal advice: "The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action."[6] Among the nations of Southeast Asia, however, in particular the Philippine government, few seem to be listening.

Less than 0.2 percent of the installed power capacity in the Philippines - around 15,000-MW - comes from new renewable energy sources such as wind power, solar and modern biomass. On the other hand, the Philippines seems bent on constructing and expanding a plague of coal plants all over the country in the next few years. If national security is indeed high on the agenda of the Philippine government, this spectacular imbalance has to change and soon.

There is no denying that countries such as the US and Australia - world class polluters both - are responsible for a gargantuan chunk of the problem. But far too easy is it to keep on blaming others for the climate crisis threatening our shores. That we, too, must do our share is an understatement. The self-interest of the Philippines demands it. The abundance of renewable energy resources in the country warrants it. The future of the entire planet requires it.

It is high time for the Philippine government to set clear, time-bound targets if it wants to genuinely secure our nation's security. By the year 2010, ten percent of our power must come from the sun, the wind and modern biomass.

RED CONSTANTINO, Greenpeace Southeast Asia

The Manila Times

October 12, 2005

[1] "Hurricanes and global warming: is there a connection," Stefan Rahmstorf, Michael Mann, Rasmus Benestad, Gavin Schmidt, and William Connolley, RealClimate.org, September 2, 2005. See: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=181 [2] Reports from AP, AFP and Reuters based on figures released by the Thai Agriculture ministry, March 15, 2005. [3] "Is the UN wrong about climate change leaving billions to starve?" New Scientist, Nicola Jones, November 17, 2001. [4] National Centre for Atmospheric Research, University of Colorado AR, Boulder, Colorado, 2005 - Jan 10th. See press notice at - http://www.ucar.edu/news/releases/2005/drought_research.shtml [5] Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Climate change, coral bleaching and the future of the world's coral reefs, Greenpeace. [6] Joint academies' statement: Global response to climate change, Academia Brasiliera de Ciencias-Brazil, Royal Society of Canada, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Academie des Sciences-France, Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher-Germany, Indian National Science Academy, Accademia dei Lincei-Italy, Science Council of Japan, Russian Academiy of Sciences, Royal Society-UK, National Academy of Sciences-USA, July 2005. See: http://nationalacademies.org/onpi/06072005.pdf