Coming to grips with a climate-defined future


How are we going to get hit? As individuals, and as a nation, what options, or opportunities do we have?   

First, as a global report, the UN report describes all projected climate impacts in terms of averages. However, climate change impacts do not take place uniformly. They are non-linear, and site specific. For certain impacts, such as storms, extreme rainfall, and sea level rise, some data already indicates that the Philippines sits well within ground zero. However, Baguio will face very different challenges from Cebu or Davao.

To be appropriate, planning and responses should, therefore, be site specific. They should be bottom up, and not top down. 

Second, beyond direct manifestations, such as rainfall or storms, there will be indirect impacts such as shifts in the range of infectious disease, economic dislocation or increased demographic pressure from forced migration from areas of high risk, toward zones of refuge. Appropriate responses should, therefore, be holistic. Silo thinking will make matters worse.

Third, the human footprint aggravates climate vulnerability.

In the Philippines, threat multipliers include rapid population growth, and the clear trend toward unplanned urbanization. All cities do not face the same mix of vulnerabilities. Once again, this is not a level playing field. It is a slope.

As we face a climate-defined future, the question is not whether to develop, but how. Whether public or private, all new investments and retro-fits need to be evaluated through a bi-focal climate lens. Mitigation looks at the reduction of carbon. Adaptation considers the management of risk. Both need to be done. Any investment, that simply falls back on business as usual technology or formulas, is a waste of money–suffering from short-term utility.  

For example, the Philippine Water Code was written in 1976. That policy is outdated. Cities along Manila Bay’s coastline, and in many other parts of the country are sinking due to over-extraction of groundwater. This increases flood risk.

And yet, the virtually unregulated use of deep wells continues to be tolerated.  We do not have a Land Use law. Land use planning is often done to show compliance, rather than build local competitiveness. Change is never easy. But, in this case, it is imperative.

In many sectors, next practice has already been defined. Early adopters will seize a competitive edge, and lead the way.

How to prepare for climate change? Like all crises, basics come first. These include local food security, water and flood management, maintaining a balanced energy mix, all-weather access and transport, health, human capital, sustainable land use, as well as urban development.

If we are to keep our nation productive and competitive, economic activity needs to be kept humming. To be inclusive, these steps need to be pro-active, rather than simply re-active.

We must learn how to work together. Cities need to act in alliance, beyond their boundaries. Companies need to think beyond their fences, and consider the viability or vulnerability of the value chains, communities and catchments where they operate.

This public-private opportunity encompasses the design and operation of airports, highways and seaports. Unless we can get to work, continue to serve our customers, or deliver our goods, local economies face the increasing risk of disruption.

Reduced reliability results in increase cost and reduced competitiveness. We need an energy mix that guarantees stable costs and no downtime.

The climate challenge covers the way we grow our crops, and manage our watersheds. No city can live without food and water. A growing nation must learn how to produce more, with less. Existing political boundaries will no longer suffice. The ecosystem is our new management envelop. 

Make time for this. Ask yourself, what things do you need?

For companies and organizations, run through a risk assessment, and review the vulnerability of each operation that is key to your continued viability. Are you in control? Start with the needs, then consider the wants. It is not difficult to do, if you call a spade, a spade.

In Cebu, my taxi driver knew exactly what intersections flood, what route to take in heavy rain, and when to pull over and wait for the floods to abate. This is a simple example that all of us can handle.

Climate change is a global phenomenon, but it will manifest itself in clusters or pockets of risk. Responses can and should be crafted at a variety of scales: catchment, city, site and building. This will define the scope of future opportunity. Everyone can be part of the solution. -

Lory Tan is the Vice Chair and Chief Executive Officer of WWF Philippines.