OPINION: President Duterte and battling climate change

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As the world moves towards a climate agenda that is promising to the country’s particular realities, there rises a need for the national leadership to remain aligned with global efforts to combat climate change, regardless of the complexities involved. Illustration by CARINA SANTOS

Editor’s note: Marianna Vargas is a Policy Project Officer at the Oscar M. Lopez Center for Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction Management in Pasig City. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN Philippines Life) — Last Dec. 12, António Guterres was sworn into office as the 9th Secretary-General of the United Nations, succeeding one of the most pivotal forces for climate action in this generation, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. Throughout his tenure, Ban Ki-Moon consistently upheld the climate change agenda by reiterating its priority as “the most defining challenge of the 21st century.” His strong leadership played a crucial role in steering the global climate regime through its darkest moments in the last decade, and despite all its challenges, awarded the planet’s future the promise of the Paris Agreement.

The considerable success brought about by the Paris Agreement and its rapid entry into force was the realization of concerted cooperation between the world’s most important leaders. Because if there is one key factor that defines effective response to climate change, it is strong and innovative leadership. To quote Al Gore in his 2008 TedTalk, “As important as it is to change the lightbulbs, it is more important to change the laws.” And laws can only be amended to address obvious realities if there is political will behind such change.

Since assuming office in June, President Duterte has consistently played hard to get with the Paris Agreement. A quick Google search on “President Duterte and Paris Agreement” makes evident a confusing yet unsurprising mix of reluctance and willingness towards the agreement. Unsurprising because the Paris Agreement, and collective international climate change negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), trigger the strong nationalist sensitivities the president is so famous for. Enshrined in the Paris Agreement is the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different circumstance” and this is perhaps where the president grounds much of his resistance to commit to the international climate regime.

If there is one thing the ambitions of the Paris Agreement signify, it is that the world is moving towards a low-carbon, fossil fuel-free future with the top emitters leading the way. And this is a transformative shift that we literally cannot afford to not be a part of.

The Philippines is responsible for about 0.3 percent of the global carbon emissions. This is considerably insignificant when set against a backdrop of historically soaring carbon emissions from the world’s leading economies such as China and the U.S. Yet the country is consistently identified as one of the frontline nations experiencing the harsh inevitability of climate change. It is therefore this reality that tests the responsiveness of domestic policy and decision-making towards progress to the changing sociopolitical (and physical) landscape. Because if there is one thing the ambitions of the Paris Agreement signify, it is that the world is moving towards a low-carbon, fossil fuel-free future with the top emitters leading the way. And this is a transformative shift that we literally cannot afford to not be a part of.

As an emerging economy and developing country, we understand the intricacies of climate change mitigation efforts, especially when discussions begin to penetrate the energy security space. Defense mechanisms in the name of development suddenly surge when prevailing energy systems become threatened by the decisive shifts needed to uphold the Paris Agreement at the national level. However, one of the landmark features of the agreement and perhaps of which much of its success is due, is the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). The INDCs are nationally determined commitments aimed at appropriately reflecting each country’s specific realities and capacities to respond to climate change. It is precisely because it is nationally determined that it seeks to not impinge on the rights of countries to develop at their own design.

There is clearly much flexibility to continue growing the economy within the self-determined parameters of the Paris Agreement. The country’s own INDCs explicitly state that national mitigation commitments are contingent on assistance from developed countries, so there is little to be apprehensive about. And it seems as though the president is beginning to understand this. Exactly one day before this year’s Conference of the Parties (COP22) opened in Marrakech, he expressed willingness to ratify the agreement despite previously strongly-worded opposition to it.

But he is obviously being careful. The president’s most recent statements on the agreement reiterate the responsibility that rests on industrialized countries to support the resource-intensive transition developing countries will need to take to uphold the commitments made under the Paris Agreement. And rightly so. As the leader of one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, his tenacious stance on seeking support is justified, but it cannot be the only stance. Within the contexts of climate change discussions, moral obligations must be received by a willingness to participate in solving the problem. A victim remains only a victim unless it decides to help itself.

Statements by high profile officials have been made regarding access to funding not being contingent on the country’s commitments to mitigate climate change, meaning the Philippines is entitled to support from wealthy nations regardless of its contribution to solving the climate crisis. That is true. But the country is not helpless, nor should it evoke any sense of helplessness to the international community. To do so would be unjust to the millions of people who elected leaders they believed would enforce their rights, and frankly unbecoming of an administration that has been so bold on many other fronts.

The Philippines has played an influential voice in the global climate change agenda. Its relevance to the issue cannot be denied. And as the world moves in a direction promising to the country’s particular realities, it is imperative that national leadership remain aligned with global efforts to combat climate change regardless of the complexities involved. And of more importance is that those leadership signals towards a climate-resilient future trickle down to the institutions and systems that support the president’s administration.