Why every second, and every fraction of a degree of global warming, matters
Mitzi Jonelle Tan reflects on growing up in the Philippines on the frontlines of the climate crisis, and what we can do next.
“Whenever I remember our situation, even if I’m alone, I cry,” Shirley Tapel said in an interview with ABS-CBN News. Tapel was one of the residents of Catanduanes island who saw her life upended in November 2020 when six typhoons hit the Philippines in the span of four weeks — one of which was the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall in recorded history. “I’m so exhausted. A typhoon will come, then afterwards we will fix our house, then suddenly we’re told there’s another storm, and we have to pack up again and evacuate.”
“I remember growing up being afraid of drowning in my bedroom, huddling in the dark with my family as raging winds outside our window knocked out power”
Tapel’s frustration and despair are shared by so many Filipinos as we experience an average of 20 typhoons yearly. This is the world today, at 1.2 degree Celsius (°C) warmer than pre-industrial levels.
Most Filipinos don’t need to be told that the climate crisis is already here and impacting us. I remember growing up being afraid of drowning in my bedroom, huddling in the dark with my family as raging winds outside our window knocked out power. But this story is already a privileged one; so many others have had it worse, some stranded on their rooftops for hours or even days, their voices battling the howling winds, calling for rescue boats that never came as floods engulfed their homes.
Our country has been hit with the highest number of extreme weather events in the past 20 years. So it’s no wonder that Filipino youth are among the most affected by eco-anxiety. This is what climate trauma in the Philippines and across the Most Affected Peoples and Areas (MAPA) looks like.
At the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, Lumumba Di-Aping, former chief negotiator of the G77 bloc — composed mostly of climate-vulnerable nations — spoke with clarity and understanding of the gravity of the situation: “We have been asked to sign a suicide pact.” He called 2°C “certain death for Africa,” and said that these actions constituted a type of “climate fascism imposed” on Africa by wealthy, high carbon-emitting countries.” Over a decade later, these words are still very relevant for all of us in MAPA.
But not everyone sees the situation the same way. We’ve always been fighting an uphill battle against the countries that emit the most greenhouse gases yet want to maintain business as usual. “If equity’s in, then we’re out,” said Todd Stern, then chief climate negotiator for the United States, back in 2011. There’s some debate about the use of the word “equity” in climate negotiations, but a lack of consideration for real climate justice is apparent in many of our politicians’ perspectives today. Despite the urgency we face with the climate crisis, world leaders are still content to squabble among themselves about which global temperature increase limit — 1.5°C or 2°C — is “feasible.” As they fight, we’re in the midst of a climate emergency that is today destroying lives and livelihoods at 1.2°C.
“At just 2°C warming, over 400 million more people living in urban areas will be exposed to drought-induced water scarcity; 2°C is also projected to expose 420 million more people to potentially lethal heat waves”
And as these conversations drag on, we’re headed toward 3°C of warming in this century. This is where we are despite the Paris Agreement and the many countries that supposedly rallied behind and pledged to stick to the 1.5°C limit goal (after years of clamor from climate-vulnerable nations). Fossil fuel production continues to rise despite overwhelming evidence that indicates it is the major source of greenhouse gas emissions.
The recent draft report released by the U.N. climate panel reminds us that, at just 2°C warming, over 400 million more people living in urban areas will be exposed to drought-induced water scarcity; 2°C is also projected to expose 420 million more people to potentially lethal heat waves. Add to that tens of millions more people facing chronic hunger by 2050 and 130 million more facing extreme poverty by 2030, all due to climate impacts. A 3°C warmer world can only be worse.
For the most marginalized — for countries like mine that are terrorized by the consequences of actions that are not our own — 2°C is not an option. The climate fascism of the colonizers and imperialists of the Global North is not an option.
Ronnel Arambulo, spokesperson of PAMALAKAYA, a federation of small fisherfolk organizations in the Philippines, talked in a calm, steady voice as ocean waves crashed in the background while we spoke on the phone. To him, the stakes are clear: “Too many foreign-backed reclamation projects have displaced our fisherfolk, too many of our dreams have been shattered to give way for these profit-driven projects… Climate justice is a call for justice for the marginalized sectors who suffer from the extreme weather events, rising seas, and other devastating impacts of climate change brought about by the imperialist plunder of the environment.”
The climate crisis is here and with 1.2°C bringing so much suffering already, fighting for 1.5°C is already a compromise. We need to continuously fight for every fraction of a degree to limit global warming. The impacts we’re now witnessing are baked in, and as we demand drastic emission cuts to reduce further warming, we must also demand reparations for adaptation, for the irreversible loss and damages we’ve already experienced, and for technology transfer and support for the Global South’s transition to a more sustainable energy system.
If global leaders fail us and we go above 1.5°C, then we’ll fight for 1.51°C, 1.52°C, 1.53°C, because MAPA and the entire world have everything to gain from keeping the temperature increase as low as possible.
My hope lies with the people fighting for justice and concrete action to limit the rise of the global average temperature. Every second counts; every fraction of a degree matters. World leaders, our voices will echo through the streets and into your comfortable offices, louder than the roars of the typhoon winds that so many of us have grown up with. Ready or not, here we come.
For too long, both climate activism and climate coverage have overlooked the voices and experiences of communities of colour. Follow our new series, It’s Happening Now, for stories that look to change that.