Duterte blames climate change for typhoons in the Philippines

After Typhoon Vamco and a series of cyclones caused the worst flooding in years on the main island of Luzon last week, the Philippine president attributed the disasters to climate change. But activists say the government is also ‘criminally liable’.

Typhoon Vamco (Ulysses) Rizal, Philippines2
Residents go through mud and debris from the aftermath of Typhoon Vamco in Rodriguez, Rizal, a province bordering the northern part of Metro Manila, Philippines. Image: Greenpeace/ Basilio Sepe

Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte blamed climate change for the onslaught of Typhoon Vamco and back-to-back cyclones that have hit the main island of Luzon in the past three weeks.

“The problem is, whether we accept it or not, climate change. The warm climate that boils the Pacific Ocean … there’s a lot of water vapour accumulating into so much rain,” Duterte said in a situation briefing on Sunday (15 November) in the northern province of Cagayan, which was put under a state of calamity for severe flooding.

“With typhoons like these, either with winds or just water pouring from the heavens, we always talk about illegal logging and mining [as the cause] but actually nothing has been done about it.”

Illegal logging and small-scale mining have been longstanding problems in the mountain ranges around Cagayan Valley.

Cagayan and Isabela were submerged in floods and landslides from Vamco, which made landfall on 11 November, and two other typhoons that battered almost the same areas in Luzon in a span of three weeks. Local authorities called it the “worst flooding in the region in 45 years”.

Apart from the northeastern provinces in Luzon, the typhoon also ravaged Bicol, the southern part of the island, with landslides and floods that trapped residents on their rooftops while awaiting rescue.

It’s really ironic for a country as [climate] vulnerable as the Philippines to pursue the policy of coal.

Ian Rivera, national coordinator, Philippine Movement for Climate Justice 

Tens of thousands of homes in the low-lying suburbs of Metro Manila and the outlying province of Rizal were also submerged up to roof-level, prompting some residents to liken the amount of rainfall to the one brought about in 2009 by Typhoon Ketsana—one of the deadliest cyclones to hit a nation that already averages 20 typhoons per year. For instance, Ketsana’s rains caused a main river in the capital to swell to 21.5 metres, but Vamco triggered floods half a metre higher.

Government’s coal policy also makes it ‘criminally liable’ for climate disasters—activists

Duterte has ordered the department of environment and natural resources to investigate illegal mining and logging activities in Cagayan Valley, which he said “caused holes that loosened the soil”, posing a threat to residents in the area.

The president also reiterated how rich countries contribute the most to global warming, compared to developing countries like the Philippines which he said “spewed a little [emissions] but not that much”.

However, climate activists said the government is equally to blame for the recent slew of natural disasters because of its continued support for coal—the single biggest driver of man-made greenhouse gas emissions globally.

“The Duterte government is accountable and criminally liable [for natural disasters] because it’s already in the science that there should be an immediate reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, but coal is still the policy of the government despite the coal moratorium,” said Ian Rivera, national coordinator of the non-governmental organisation Philippine Movement for Climate Justice (PMCJ), in an online briefing with sustainable energy advocates on 17 November.

“It’s really ironic for a country as [climate] vulnerable as the Philippines to pursue the policy of coal.”

The Philippines’ department of energy announced a moratorium on coal last month, but did not include a phase out of existing and pre-approved projects.There are currently 33 coal-fired plants in the country and 23 more in the pipeline, amounting to 13.8 gigawatts.

Although the president ordered reduced dependence on coal last year, the fossil fuel will account for an estimated 52.3 per cent of the 396.9 million metric tonnes of carbon-dioxide emitted by the country in 2030, according to the Philippine Energy Plan. 

Gerry Arances, convenor of Power for People Coalition (P4P), said the responsibility of the government from natural disasters must “not be removed” especially since the country is already ranked seventh in the world in coal expansion, according to a Global Energy Monitor study released in June. 

“Factories in rich countries may have emitted the most [to cause] global warming, but we [in the Philippines] have also made our own contribution. If Duterte is sincere in saying that our biggest problem is climate change, then he can do something in his own backyard,” Arances said.

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