The Philippines and Typhoon Haiyan: Implications for National Elections (Part 2)

Climate change must become a yardstick for the maturity of the electorate and a tool for measuring effective governance. Five core dimensions need to be tackled in order to turn climate and environment into a visible and decisive electoral issue in the Philippines.

The environment has been integrated into political campaigns in recent elections: civil society has assessed the respective platforms and the track record of candidates; a Greenpeace and Ecowaste Coalition have led efforts to educate voters about the positions; and some politicians have put in place initiatives to address climate change concerns. But there is a need to amplify and sustain the message throughout the entire campaign season to make climate change and sustainability pivotal issues for voters in the 2016 election.

Now the stakes are even higher. The Philippines needs public officials who will transform climate change into a national priority. Our country cannot afford politics as usual.What can be done?

At least five dimensions need specific attention in order to turn climate change into a pivotal issue in the next election.

1. Adaptation and disaster risk reduction

The Philippines is highly vulnerable to climate change, with far-reaching and increasingly extreme impacts on health, food security, and livelihoods. A comprehensive approach is needed calling for honest, intelligent and ingenious efforts by political candidates and experts to improve our capacity to adapt to and manage climate risks. We need to work with voters to increase the demand for politicians and public officials who can do this and offer concrete plans to link environmental protection with the development of human welfare.

2. Mitigation and a clean energy economy

Opinion leaders, advocates and voters need to push politicians to address the issue of greenhouse gas emissions as well. Increasing investments in renewable energy offers a good starting point. The Philippines has taken critical, initial steps to establish the legal foundation for the development and promotion of renewable energy. In 2008, then President Gloria MacapagalArroyo signed into law the Renewable Energy Act and Aquino later launched the National Renewable Energy Plan in 2010, giving breath to the Renewable Energy law. The following year, the Department of Energy unveiled a roadmap to source half of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2030 and later approved renewable energy projects that will generate over 630 megawatts in 2014.

Meanwhile, the Aquino administration’s 17 coal plant contracts will go ahead. In addition to the environmental hazard of emitting carbon dioxide at levels higher than other fossil fuels, coal also poses many health risks. Political candidates must therefore convey their strategy for making a transition to renewable energy, setting up specific actions that tackle the challenges associated with this transition. Paramount here is consistency and clarity of vision. In shaping the energy path for the country, public officials need to provide the specifics of a plan that will allow the Philippines to transition to a fossil-free energy future.Because the Filipino public faces increasing electricity costs and the threat of a power crisis, the social implications of sticking to fossil fuel-based energy need to be treated explicitly.

3. Agriculture, mining, forestry and biodiversity

An examination of the proposed actions and policies of public officials in agricultural, mining and forestry is essential.Voters must question where the conservation of natural resources, including biodiversity, fit into our development strategy. We already have national action plans on biodiversity and climate change, but voters should ask how the candidates´ proposals propel their implementation. This scrutiny could promote continuity and coherence within government action.

Political candidates need to acknowledge the connection between conserving biodiversity and reducing poverty. According to “Linking Biodiversity Conservation and Poverty Alleviation: A State of Knowledge Review,” the rural poor largely depend on access to ecosystems for their livelihoods. The Philippines also has a national strategy on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), a voluntary mechanism that compensates developing countries for promoting the sustainable management of forests. REDD+ aims to integrate human rights protection and participatory governance in its safeguards, measures that minimize the risks of REDD+ acting as a threat to biodiversity and indigenous peoples.

4. The role of the media

The media can and should play a pivotal role in making climate and sustainability concerns more prominent during the elections. These election issues can no longer be downplayed by the media. We need to debate how and when climate change will damage economic growth. The media could host expert discussions that no longer pit environmental and climate protection against the economy, and instead frame the debate as a question of why these two issues need to be considered together for the benefit of Filipinos and the economy. Discussions in the media are needed in order to show mainstream voters that climate change is intertwined with the economy, development and poverty alleviation.

5. Transparency and accountability

We need to remind voters of the need for transparent and accountable use of relief funds. Approximately US$20 million should have been used to help farmers affected by the destructive Typhoon Ketsana in 2009, which left over a 1000 dead, but these were allegedly siphoned off to dubious nongovernment organizations. The relief came from the Malampaya funds or from revenues from the oil and gas fields operated in Palawan. The disaster happened under the term of president Arroyo, who was already suffering from low approval ratings due to allegations of corruption. Arroyo was heavily criticized for the inadequate response to Typhoon Ketsana. Questions were also raised over the competence of then defense secretary Gilbert Teodoro, Arroyo’s party member who headed the National Disaster Coordinating Council and became a presidential candidate in 2010.

In the case of Haiyan, billions of dollars of aid has poured in from donors, and the government is set to release billions more for the rehabilitation of areas devastated by the storm.It is paramount that the use of these funds be a concern among voters. A citizen monitoring watch initiative has been introduced to track the flow of funds and it’s imperative that the results of this project be made known to the public in order to keep the issue alive on the political radar.

Clearly, underpinning this debate is the issues of education and building awareness. The June 2013 Social Weather Stations survey pointed out that 8 out of 10 Filipinos already experience the impacts of climate change.If they are given verified information and the right context, these real life experiences could inform the citizens’ voting choices on election day.

According to the study “Make it Rain? Retrospection and the Attentive Electorate in the context of Natural Disasters ,” weather events serve as “unexpected tests of leadership” to politicians, and electorates “do not arbitrarily punish politicians for events beyond their control.” They do “punish” them, the study suggests, if they do not take actions. Analysis on the 2008-2010 elections found that a “candidate gained votes by taking a green position and lost votes by taking a not-green position”.

These studies show that climate change is entering the consciousness of the voting public. Disasters and extreme weather events could possibly move voters into demanding a new form of leadership that effectively establishes strategies to prepare institutions and implement programs for disaster and climate change preparedness.

Candidates now have stronger incentives for making climate change a main part of their agenda, but voters will need to be vigilant and conscientious, assessing the credibility of the candidates’ claims and positions on climate change issues. Typhoon Haiyan can offer many lessons in this respect.

Climate change must become a yardstick for the maturity of the electorate and a means for measuring effective governance.We need new strategies so that the Filipino voter keeps this in mind at the ballot box two years from now. Millions of informed voters could save lives.

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