Where are our priorities?

Edwin Santiago, Fellow and Member of the Editorial Board of the Stratbase ADR Institute

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), in its website, does not seem alarmed about climate change, although it recognizes its presence.

According to PAGASA, “climate change is happening now,” adding that “it is most likely due to the observed increase in greenhouse gas concentrations from such activities as the burning of fossil fuels and land use change.” Recent scientific studies have begun calling it a “climate crisis,” one that is an existential threat to all life on the planet. The government, through PAGASA, mildly describes it as posing “considerable challenges to man and the environment and will continue to do so in the future.”

Then, why does it seem like business-as-usual in this regard? Is the general public merely out of the loop or there is very little being done by the government that warrants landing on the news? A lot of people confuse what is important and what is urgent, thinking that the two are synonymous. If we are to believe what we see, hear, and read, then this is an emergency — and that means it is both important and urgent.

It is baffling, to say the least, that our government and politicians have thought of emergency powers for the Metro Manila traffic, have conceived a war on illegal drugs, have spent valuable Senate time on investigating the Good Conduct Time Allowance, and yet have not even considered climate change as resembling an emergency.

True, the administration has displayed pro-environment actions by rejecting and returning the importation of waste from Canada and other countries. What about the use of coal energy? The Department of Energy (DoE) has adopted a fair balance approach that aims to be responsive to a global responsibility to address climate change and the dilemma of producing enough affordable and reliable electricity to sustain economic growth for a fast-growing population. President Duterte, whether sincerely or paying lip service, mentioned in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) that “we recognize the urgent need to ensure the sustainability and availability of resources and the development of alternative ones.” He added that the government shall “fast-track the development of renewable energy sources and reduce dependence on the traditional energy sources such as coal.”

Is the bureaucracy heeding the call of the President? Coal continues to dominate the mix of energy sources at 53%. There is in the pipeline close to 30 new coal projects. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources reportedly, granted an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) to a proposed 15-megawatt coal plant in Palawan.

Consistent with the DoE’s power mix policy and push to close the looming power supply gaps, the “supercritical” coal-fired power plant in Mauban, Quezon of San Buenaventura Power Ltd. (SBPL) has been permitted to operate, adding 500 megawatts just in time for several anticipated maintenance shutdowns starting this October. This is the first new generation High Efficiency Low Emission (HELE) technology replacing old inefficient coal plants in Japan and Europe, setting new benchmarks in reducing both emissions and costs. Seems like a sensible technology-driven compromise aligned with the DoE’s balancing posture.

These may not sound like the President’s directive is being taken seriously, or he does not really mean what he said in his SONA.

And, there are those who actively support the continued use of coal. They accuse those against it as being alarmists. Their pro-coal stance is based on arguments that other countries use coal even more. Off hand, this may sound valid, but a closer analysis yields a logical fallacy — just because others are doing it too does not make something right.

While we are on the philosophical alley, Pascal’s wager comes to mind in this discourse. Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician, said that humans bet with their lives that God either exists or does not. Should people believe in God or not? What happens one way or the other? If it turns out that God does not exist — to be discovered upon one’s death — only finite loss would have been given up, such as pleasures, etc. On the other hand, if God does exist, eternity in heaven in infinitely gained and infinite loss of eternity in hell is avoided. Therefore, he argued, it is in the best interest of man to believe in God.

Applied roughly on the discussions about the use of coal energy, if we discontinue operating (and building new) coal plants and, as it turns out, the continued use of this fossil fuel will not lead to the annihilation of life on the planet, then what is the worse that would have happened? Frequent blackouts, as the coal defenders argue, that will place the country under darkness. But we also stand to gain with cleaner and renewable energy.

A couple of weeks ago, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) signalled the red alert for the blue planet. Banks, including Deutsche Bank, Citigroup, and Barclays, adopted a position away from fossil fuels in their loan portfolios.

The warming of the oceans leads to stronger typhoons and a rise in the sea level. This is, in part, due to the melting of glaciers. Moreover, with higher sea levels and its possible intrusion, agricultural areas near the coast could turn saline.

Our leaders have a moral obligation to address the climate crisis. And this is exactly the message of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden, who walked out of school to raise awareness of climate issues. She has called on people to behave as if we were in an emergency, inspiring protests in other countries. In her public messages, she claims that the young probably do not even have a future anymore because that future was sold so that a small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money. Who are these people who are more interested in getting wealthy than caring for the environment and for the future of the next generations?

Do Filipinos really have a short-term memory and no foresight? After all, not too long after the country booted out the Marcoses, they were back in power. I dare say that we lack the sense that we are all in this together. Observing how Filipinos act, there is a very strong tendency to believe that the dominant predisposition is every man for himself.

Let me ask you. Should we really be more concerned about frequent blackouts than the survival of life on earth? Should we sacrifice the future of succeeding generations for the convenience of having uninterrupted power supply for the current generation? Where are our priorities?




This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.


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