(Delivered during the 2018 Ten Outstanding Young Men and Women of the Philippines awarding ceremonies at the GSIS Theater, Pasay City, Philippines, on April 9, 2019.)
Thank you for this recognition. I share this award with my fellow environmentalists and the hard working staff of Climate Reality Philippines, a ragtag group of environmentalists enabled by former US Vice President Al Gore and the Climate Reality Project. Our work would not be possible without the cooperation and collaboration of the many climate warriors throughout our country. Some are well known organizations with global networks while some consist of small numbers of unpaid individuals working quietly in their communities. Others still belong to religious groups who are doing their best to preserve and protect God’s greatest gift to us, planet Earth.
This recognition warms our hearts, this gives us another opportunity to advocate for nature, for the planet, and for our future. So here I go. To the young people who are here – some adults did not fail you, here in front of you… but in behalf of those who failed you – I am sorry, I apologize for this world, the environment you experience now. We still have time, but the time is ticking – we have 11 years to solve this!
Its not easy to talk to people about climate change. Until recently, its been a very abstract concept for many people. Reducing carbon emissions, keeping global average temperatures from increasing too quickly are hard to grasp, and the actions necessary to deal with it require serious concrete changes in the way we live our lives. Eat less meat and more food that is sustainably produced. Walk or ride a bicycle instead of commuting or driving. Use less electricity. It’s hard to convince people to cut down on their creature comforts today in order to preserve the planet for tomorrow’s generations. And its just as hard, if not harder, to convince corporations to forgo the massive profits they make from building coal fired power plants or engaging in rampant destructive mining.
But for me, the dangers to the environment are very real. I was born in Sibuyan Island, Romblon. Growing up there put me face-to-face with the dangers of nature’s fury. Ten years ago, Typhoon Frank, known internationally as Fengshen, tore through the Philippines packing winds as strong as 205 kilometers per hour. As it made its way across my island home, a passenger ship, the MV Princess of the Stars was traversing the waters of Romblon with more than 800 people on board. Frank’s strong winds caused the Princess of the Stars to capsize right there off the coast of Sibuyan. Over 700 passengers died that day, their bodies scattered along the waters and the beaches of Sibuyan. For months, my own family as well as many others, who largely subsisted on fishing could not fish the waters for fear of contamination from the dead bodies and from the debris of the sunken ship.
Deprived of our livelihood by nature’s fury, we survived on relief goods for weeks. There were many reasons for that tragedy, but I was struck by one reason in particular: that storms of the magnitude of Frank were happening more frequently because unrestrained human activity was pushing more carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, trapping more heat in our skies and oceans. Hotter air and oceans were was causing our polar ice caps to rapidly melt, causing increased flooding and endangering coastal communities like the ones in Sibuyan Island. But this global warming was also leading to more frequent and more powerful storms, which was exactly what happened that day in 2008 when the princess of the Stars was caught in the fury of typhoon Frank.
In the weeks that followed, headlines bannered lawmakers and other government officials investigating the owners of the Princess of the Stars. I saw recommendations to improve maritime safety. I saw condemnations of greedy businessmen and negligent bureaucrats. But what I didn’t see was any meaningful public discussion on climate change. I asked myself, how any long term solution to the Princess of The Stars incident could exclude the issue of climate change. In those weeks that followed, I decided to make protection of the environment my life’s work.
Through the years, there were many challenges. In Sibuyan alone, there were at one point 24 applications for mining operations. One of the brave residents of Sibuyan who worked hard to oppose these applications was a friend, Armin Marin, who was a member of the local council of San Fernando. During a protest against the operations of Sibuyan Nickel Mining Company, the head of security of the company shot and killed Armin.
Armin isn’t the only environmentalist to be killed for his advocacy. The headlines are littered with stories about murders of activists protesting against mines and coal plants. But despite the challenges, and the very real dangers we face, we persist.
We persist because we care too much about the present and the future of our communities and our planet. We persist because we want to give meaning to those who have fought and died for a cleaner world.
This 2019, the fight takes on a new dimension. Together environmental groups like Green Convergence, CEED, and Greenpeace, among others, have joined hands with leaders of the Catholic Church, like Bishop Gerry Alminaza of San Carlos, Negros Occidental, Brother Armin Luistro of Christian Brothers, countless priests and nuns, and laity, to campaign for the Catholic Church in the Philippines and all its instrumentalities to stop allowing its funds to be used to finance the development and operation of mining, coal-fired power plants, and businesses that have a proven track record of consistently harming the environment. This call to divest, was inspired by the 2015 encyclical of the Holy Father Pope Francis entitled “Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home” in which he calls on the Catholic faithful to take stronger collective action to respond to the dangers of climate change, environmental abuse, and quite literally to save the planet.
In Laudato Si, the Pope forcefully and convincingly links environmental degradation to the social, economic, and political inequality that is undermine our global political systems today. He laments that current responses by the global community are inadequate. I will not go into detail about the encyclical as it is quite lengthy, but I urge all of you, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, to read and understand it. It is a powerful manifesto for our times.
Allow me to quote parts of the open letter released by Climate Reality Philippines late last year:
“We thank everyone who has taken individual steps to reduce their carbon footprint and be more responsible consumers of the Earth’s resources. Those who in their own daily activities minimize the use of plastics, who walk or bike instead of driving or commuting, who conserve water, who reduce the consumption of red meat or produce less food waste, who minimize the use of electricity.
We also thank communities who take collective action, such as organizing cleanup drives for our coasts, rivers and lakes, purchase products made of recycled material, and encourage the use of renewable energy.
But if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that these efforts simply aren’t enough. According to NASA, the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is the highest in 650,000 years. The average global temperature is nearly 2 degrees higher than it was since 1880, with oceans alone seeing an increase of 0.3 degrees. And sea levels have risen by 178 millimeters in the past 100 years.
What does this mean for us?
It will be more difficult and more expensive to farm our food. Seafood that we take for granted today will become more scarce. Storms will be stronger and more harmful to our towns and cities. Coastal areas will flood more frequently and eventually become uninhabitable. The extinction of plant and animal species will accelerate even more.
These are all very real problems that our children and grandchildren will have to live with if we don’t act now. And as Laudato Si laments, it is the poorest of our children and grandchildren who will suffer the most. Yet for the most part, society continues as if these problems don’t matter. Some of us even continue to deny climate change despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that it is real and is now upon us.
Recognizing the urgency of the problem and the requirements of our faith, we are calling on our Catholic institutions—our parishes, our dioceses, our religious orders, our schools, our Catholic communities—to come together and make our voices heard in the most powerful way we can today:
We urge you to stop allowing your financial resources to be used to support these harmful activities. Tell the appointed stewards of your financial resources to withhold deposits, investments, and loans to institutions that are engaged in or enable the growth of businesses and ventures that harm the environment.”
As Catholics, as Filipinos, and as citizens of this Earth, I urge you to support this endeavor and add your voices to our growing number. You can learn more at www.livinglaudatosi.ph. Thank you for this award and thank you for taking the time to listen to me.
Friends, join me in reciting my invocation every day:
Your fresh breath gives forth life, O Mother Nature. Give me the strength to stand up and be worthy of your warm embrace as I prepare to embrace those who have cold hearts. Pierce my heart with your sharp lightning and deafen my ears with the sound of your thunder. Drown me in your ever-flowing waters and bury me in the humus of your uncovering history. From your bosom, let your resting warriors resurrect to hold your armor and eventually raise our arms in victory. Permit me to use their vigor and zeal, their bravery and strength to serve you and the rest of humanity with aims of living in harmony, in peace, and in prosperity.