Environment and climate change: Duterte owns the problems now

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President Duterte has inherited problems from past administrations. He must lead us away from ecological apocalypse by being bold and visionary

June 30, 2017 — It has been an exciting year for the environment and for climate change under President Duterte. Whether change for the better has come and progress will be finally made in these two important areas of our national life is, however, still uncertain.

Choosing Gina Lopez as environment secretary was certainly a stroke of genius by President Duterte. For the first time, we had a top environmental official who saw her mandate as the protector of nature and people first and did not bother to balance other considerations. In the past, others in her position, while as committed to the environment as her, always saw their role as forging a balance between environment and development and thus weighing always the needs and interests of the business community.

Gina Lopez would not have any of that and rushed into a head-on collision with the mining industry. That turned out to be her undoing because the industry actively lobbied to have her rejected by the Commission on Appointments (CA). They were successful and, because of that, we have been deprived the opportunity of seeing whether the Lopez approach would work better for the planet and people.

Now we must wait and see as the new secretary, former Armed Forces chief Roy Cimatu takes over the department. He is still adjusting to the role and we must wait until he makes major decisions before we can lay judgment on his performance. Personally, I am optimistic that Secretary Cimatu will do well in the DENR. He seems to be a technically competent person and a good manager, certainly very personable. I suspect he has more support from the career officials of DENR than Secretary Lopez had.

The good thing is that there are good officials in the DENR, people like Undersecretary Anna Teh and Biodiversity Management Bureau Director Mundita Lim who can help Secretary Cimatu do his job. I am also glad that Undersecretary Ipat Luna, a top environmental lawyer appointed by Lopez, has so far stayed in the DENR. She is brilliant, wise, and passionate; Cimatu will benefit gratefully from her advice.

We saw also an important change in top officials in the Climate Change Commission (CCC), with Vice Chair Manny de Guzman replaced by Commissioner Vernice Victorio, who is from Davao City. Secretary Victorio is the 4th person in 7 years to head the CCC, tasked with leading and coordinating Philippine government efforts to address climate change. I have worked with all of them, including Victorio, and I can attest that they are all competent and good public servants.

Something is, however, dysfunctional in the concept and structure of the CCC that it has never seen stability since its creation. Every CCC vice chair has been criticized unfairly, and that will continue until changes in our climate change law is done. I would urge the climate change community to be patient and to work with the incumbent CCC to iron out the organizational gaps so that the agency can effectively play the role it was given. I would certainly endorse without qualification Secretary Victorio. She knows climate change issues very well, has integrity, and is close to the Palace. The latter is a must because the President is, in fact, the chair of the CCC.

As for the President, he has left environment and climate change mainly in the hands of his chosen officials and, except for a few times, have not spoken about these. He did weigh in on the mining debate and consistently sided with Secretary Lopez. In that debate, though, Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez argued for more balance and was supported by Executive Secretary Medialdea in the specific disputes that went to the Office of the President. And while vocal in his support for Lopez, the President did not intervene with his congressional allies to have her confirmed by the CA. Some have accused the President of insincerity for such omission.

On climate change, the President clearly understands the issue. In fact, he highlighted it in his first Cabinet meeting, emphasizing its impacts and how we must prepare for it. He did, however, take the climate change community by surprise when he initially trash talked the Paris Agreement, describing it as unfair. Eventually, however, the President was convinced by his Cabinet to ratify the Paris Agreement, with which the Senate concurred last March. That was the right decision from a climate point of view, as the Philippines would have been isolated if we chose to remain outside that agreement.

Beyond the personalities and the controversies of the agencies tasked with dealing with them, the environment and climate change cannot wait. Our environment continues to deteriorate even as climate change impacts accelerates. Conversion of forests continues unabated and biodiversity consistently diminishes. Pollution incidents have grown, with mining and coal power plants, among others, loading pollutants into our air and water. Our cities are choked by emissions from vehicles and unregulated factories. Above all, land use continues to be irrational, making environmental planning a futile exercise. In the meantime, climate related disasters from El Niños to floods increase in frequency and ferocity.

We should not, of course, blame the Duterte government for these. These are inherited from past administrations, indeed from many decades of neglect and wrong decisions. But President Duterte owns the problem now and must lead us away from ecological apocalypse by being bold and visionary.

For mining, that means strict implementation of the law so that only the companies that are committed to responsible mining can operate. Only a few companies would meet that criteria.

For pollution, that means higher standards on emissions and rigorous implementation so that offenders are punished and not allowed again to operate.

To conserve nature, a land conversion moratorium could be very helpful.

For energy, capping coal power plants and hastening the transition to renewable energy is imperative.

For fisheries, the creation of a separate department could be helpful.

For climate change, localizing climate change adaptation effectively in all our islands is a priority.

For Congress, it would be good to pass an amended climate change law that fixes the CCC and implements our Paris Agreement commitments, a disaster risk reduction and management law that creates an independent disaster agency, a good land use act, a new energy law that establishes an energy mix heavy on renewables, a new mining law that has a better revenue sharing system in favor of government and communities, and a corporate environmental liability act.

Much work needs to be done by the Duterte government to address environmental concerns and the challenges brought by climate change. Doing the normal things expected from government is not enough. The problems are growing exponentially; we must go ahead of the curve to catch up. That’s what is needed and how this administration will be measured at the end of its term.


by Tony La Viña | Rappler.com