CIVICUS speaks about the impacts of climate change and the response of climate activism with Ronan Renz Napoto, founder and executive director of Balud, a youth-led movement from the Philippines that promotes ecological consciousness by engaging with and empowering young people.
Why did you become a climate activist?
What made me a climate activist was the trauma of living through one of the strongest-ever recorded super typhoons in the world’s history. Almost 10 years ago, on 8 November 2013, super typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) hit the Philippines. It provoked a lot of global discussions on how climate change was affecting the global south, particularly the Philippines and Southeast Asia.
The typhoon caused enormous damage and killed more than 6,000 people. We lost relatives and friends, our homes were destroyed and our livelihoods were compromised.
Because typhoons usually hit around this time of year, now we are all anxious again. We are constantly reminded of how our lives and livelihoods were affected, and of how nothing changed for the better despite our efforts and the global media coverage we got.
We have continued to experience similarly destructive typhoons. Extreme weather events have affected our farmers’ crops and diminished the catch of our fishers. Climate change has resulted in greater food insecurity and poverty.
In the Philippines, climate change is no longer theoretical. It is a fact of life and a threat to our lives. Before the typhoon we had dreams and hopes for the future, but we have had to push them aside to focus on surviving and fighting back.
What is climate activism focusing on in the Philippines?
We want to hold polluters accountable for their emissions and for the neglect of their climate responsibilities. In the Philippines, environmental defenders are often threatened and risk their lives when protecting our resources from corporations’ greed. To hold them accountable for their emissions, numerous organisations and activists have submitted a landmark petition to the Philippines’ Commission of Human Rights. The next step should be to force them to decrease their emissions drastically and eventually stop emitting carbon.
We push for reparations so that communities are properly compensated, and for funding for adaptation. The transition to renewable energy sources must be a just transition, ensuring that communities’ vulnerability to disaster decreases. Otherwise catastrophes will hit over and over, and the response will continue to be reactive, limited to responding to what has happened instead of producing proactive and preventative solutions. It’s not enough to go help communities after the disaster has happened – disasters must be prevented from happening.
But the resources of the Philippines are limited, so we will need external support. Since this crisis is the global north’s doing, it is only right for them to support our adaptation.
We want global north governments to acknowledge their responsibility for their pollution and its effects on the global south. If you look at emissions data, you will find the Philippines contributes very little compared to the big polluters of the global north. But the biggest impacts of their pollution are being felt in the Philippines and the rest of the global south. This is unfair.
But it’s not just our issue; it is a global issue. What has happened – and continues to happen – in the Philippines is an experience shared with many other countries, particularly in the Pacific, where people are very susceptible to sea level rise, typhoons and cyclones.
That’s why the leaders of nine small island states have gone to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the United Nations’ maritime court, to ask it to determine if carbon dioxide emissions absorbed by the oceans can be considered pollution, and if so, what obligations countries have to prevent it.
Why is it important to have carbon dioxide emissions absorbed by oceans recognised as pollution?
In an archipelagic country like the Philippines, which is surrounded by waters, livelihoods depend on the bounty of marine resources. Whatever comes into the ocean that is not part of its natural ecosystem is bad. Pollution of our marine sanctuaries, oceans and beaches translates into health risks and economic losses. It affects sea life and therefore our food security.
Carbon dioxide is a pollutant, but it is not specifically mentioned in international law on maritime pollution, and as long as it is not recognised as such, it creates no obligations for states.
Will you take part in the upcoming COP28 climate summit?
I don’t think I will be taking part in COP 28 since it is far away, expensive and very hard to get funding for. I think this will be the case for most climate activists in the Philippines. Unsurprisingly, one of our main concerns is getting a good amount of representation in the ongoing discussions on climate change. Apart from the lack of funding, it is always hard to get into global climate discussions because there is not a dedicated space for us.
However, I look forward to seeing planned actions being implemented. So far, the results of the summits have been mostly about acknowledging concerns and making statements. Now it’s time to ensure that decisions are operationalised and states – particularly the rich and powerful ones that are part of the problem – are held to account. We cannot continue planting trees on one side while allowing them to cut down trees on the other side. That way we’ll never make any substantial progress.
Civic space in the Philippines is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.