Friday, July 22, 2016

Ten years later, still an inconvenient truth

by Gideon Lasco

CEBU CITY - Ten years ago, when Al Gore released Inconvenient Truth, the documentary detailing how our planet is being affected by a rapidly-warming planet, perhaps it was still possible to dismiss it as a doomsday prophecy. Perhaps it was still possible to imagine that the world will simply continue the way it was; that we could keep burning fossil fuels and squandering our natural resources with impunity.

Perhaps it was still possible to acknowledge global warming as a reality - but one that is eons away, and thus as irrelevant to our time as the eventual expansion of the Sun, or the ultimate destruction of the Universe.

What a difference ten years make.

Today, echoes of Yolanda’s devastation still reverberate in our country and many victims are still reeling from its effects. Even as the blame game continues, there is little doubt that a changing climate was a predisposing factor - one that can continue wreaking havoc to our country in the typhoon seasons to come.

Today, a massive wildfire in Alberta, Canada still rages, having already burned 500,000 hectares of forest - almost the size of the entire island of Cebu. Experts agree that this fire is an unprecedented disaster that goes far beyond natural limits.

Today, our very own Mt. Apo - the country’s highest peak - has barely began recovery from a massive fire that destroyed hundreds of hectares of tropical rainforest. And while it is only Apo that has received media attention, many other mountains suffered fires, from Mt. Hamiguitan in Davao Oriental to the Cordilleras in Northern Luzon. As in Canada, the scope and magnitude of these fires are unprecedented.

The worsening El Niño has not only affected the environment - but humans as well (it is naive for us to separate ourselves from the ecosystem to which we belong). In Cebu alone, at least seven deaths have been attributed to heat stroke due to this year’s El Niño, and the toll to humans is far more catastrophic once we start connecting the dots: When farmers in Kidapawan cry for help amid their hunger - a hunger that is due to the destruction of their crops, which in turn is due to the severe drought - are we not seeing the consequences of a planet that is becoming hostile to crops it once nourished?

If ten years ago, the truth was debatable, today, many people - at least in our country - accept it as a reality (conspiracy theories notwithstanding). But while we have been acknowledging and experiencing the truth of climate change, acting upon its implications remains inconvenient.

It remains inconvenient because while global warming calls upon us to reduce our carbon footprint, we still find it inconvenient to do so: many would still find it a “hassle” to bring their own bags while shopping - or cut back on air conditioning. Indeed, the comforts of modernity, unsustainable though they are, remains too difficult for many to let go. Moreover, even if we wanted to, our society has not made it convenient for us to reduce our impact: There may be people who wish to walk, bike, or take public transport - but there is no infrastructure to do so.

Secondly, it remains inconvenient to live up to the implications of climate change partly because for every inconvenient truth, there is a convenient falsehood.

Today, we hear politicians talk about “clean coal”, as if the word “clean” before coal can exorcise the dangers of coal and other fossil fuels to human health and the environment (coal plants alone account for 1/3 of global carbon emissions). Today, we hear people talk about “responsible mining”, which, while it may indeed be a possibility in the future, detracts from the fact that mining has been responsible for the environmental degradation in many areas, from Semirara to Surigao.

But perhaps the most convenient falsehood of all is the idea that we are too insignificant to make a difference. Indeed, if there is something we can draw inspiration from in the past ten years, it is the fact that no effort is too small not to count in our fight to save the planet.

Our own country is a good example. Geopolitically, we have never been one of the big players - and neither have we been one of the big polluters. But in the international effort to deal with climate change, we have taken a position of moral leadership that is borne out of our experiences. The road to last year’s Paris negotiations “started in Manila”, and Filipino scientists, activists, and lawmakers alike have been a strong voice in the global conversation to combat climate change.

Small innovations and advocacies can also make a difference. From scientists pouring their time and effort to make clean technologies - and to make technologies clean - to activists lobbying for the enactment of laws creating protected areas, or ordinances to discourage the use of plastic bags - we all have a role to play in whatever field we find ourselves in.


Ten years ago, the challenge was to convince people of the inconvenient truth of a warming planet. Today, the challenge is no longer to make people accept this truth, but to make them live up to its implications.

Thus we have to continue clamoring for political leadership that can act on this planetary menace - and stand up to dirty industries. We have to continue making use of our knowledge and skills in coming up with new ideas, technologies, and practices that can help us move towards sustainable development.

And we have to lead an example of how we can reduce our carbon footprints - starting with our own lives.

The parable of the lost cellphone

I used to lose cellphones all the time. I lost my phone to knife-bearing 'holdapers' while riding a jeepney in E. Rodriguez, Quezon City and to a snatcher on a Manila-bound bus from Batangas. The most careless of all when my phone slipped into the sea while I texting on a boat in Coron - an episode witnessed by my friend Olivia Mejia. Helpless, all I could do was post on Facebook that "I may have lost my phone but at least I found paradise".

But there was a time when I thought that my phone was gone, only for me to get it back in a way that helped me appreciate an often-misunderstood part of our country. I was traveling in Maguindanao when, upon returning to Cotabato City, I realized that my phone was gone. At the time, the Maguindanao massacre was still fresh on people’s minds and I have to admit that I felt a bit of unease while traveling in the area. In any case, even if the disappearance happened anywhere else in the Philippines, I honestly thought that there was no chance that I could ever get my phone back.

To my surprise, however, my friend and host in Cotabato - Dr. Zhamir Umag- got a text message from my mobile number that night, with someone saying that he had found my phone. "How can I return it?" the sender asked. It turned out that I had left it on the jeepney back to Cotabato, and it was picked up by someone from Buldon, Maguindanao. Zham communicated with the finder and they made arrangements for the phone to be brought back to Cotabato the next time the finder goes to the city.

I was already back in Manila when the phone arrived by courier. When I opened the phone, I saw various pictures that the finder must have taken using the phone. It revealed a mountainous area and a wooden house (like the one in the picture) that must have been the finder's home. Surely, if he had sold the phone, it would have made for a significant sum. The more I looked at the photos - the finder's young kids, his wife, and their village - the more I marveled at the kindness of the finder.

Grateful, and thrilled, I asked Zham to offer a token of appreciation to the honest finder and his family.

But the finder turned it down, saying:

"Please tell him that we're not expecting any reward. We're just being good Muslims."

Note: I originally posted this photo on Facebook where it went viral, getting over 32,000 likes and 5,400 shares. It was also carried by several news outlets and websites:

"The Heartwarming Story Behind this Viral Photo" (ABS-CBN)