Climate consequences

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau: Our survival is non-negotiable

An open letter from survivors of climate catastrophe in the Philippines
Photo: Matt Paish

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,

Two years ago, the world stood witness as Haiyan (known in the Philippines as Yolanda), one of the strongest and deadliest typhoons ever recorded, left thousands upon thousands of our friends, neighbours, relatives and loved ones killed and missing, rendering millions of others homeless and more hopeless than ever.

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You have promised that your government will make real change in addressing the global climate crisis. We wholeheartedly welcome this and call on you to commit to bold solutions based on science and justice. As you prepare to attend the United Nations climate negotiations in Paris we implore you to consider what climate justice truly looks like in the communities most affected by climate change - for our survival is non-negotiable.

Here is a list of four critical things your government can do to hold true to your words.

1. Start paying your climate debt.

In 2013, in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, Filipino climate negotiator Yeb Sano went on a hunger strike at the UN negotiations in Warsaw. Three hundred other delegates joined his fast. Sano summarized their demands to world leaders in this way: “We must put the money where our mouths are.”

No matter how many solar panels are installed, no matter how many new levees are built, we must face the hard truth that climate change will inevitably lead to the complete and irrecoverable loss of lives and livelihoods and the repairable damage of homes and infrastructure.

Why this year’s UN climate negotiations matter

For 20 years the Alliance of Small Island States struggled to put this issue of “loss and damage” on the negotiating table. Loss and damage is a term for a stream of funding that compensates uniquely vulnerable areas for destruction caused by climate change that mitigation and adaptation cannot prevent. As the world grieved the loss of life in the Philippines, wealthy nations acquiesced to one of Sano’s demands and developed a work program for loss and damage, with the aim of finding ways to address the issue in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.

The world now experiences an average of eight times as many disasters per year as we did in the 1960s. The UN reports that 87 per cent of these disasters are now climate related, while data shows that the climate crisis now kills approximately 400,000 people each year while causing $1.2 trillion in economic losses.

In the last 20 years humanitarian funding requests related to environmental disasters have quadrupled, yet the gap between the amount requested and the amount provided has grown by 800 per cent.

In this context it is shameful that Canada’s foreign aid spending is the lowest it has been in 20 years, at just 0.24 per cent of GDP. This falls below the average for OECD countries and far short of the 0.7 per cent recommended by the UN and committed to unanimously by the Canadian parliament in 2005.

In researching the aid spending of OECD countries, David Strömberg, an economics professor at Stockholm University, found that disasters in Africa receive an average of 21 per cent less relief aid than those in Europe, while those in the Asia-Pacific region receive 36 per cent less. Strömberg put this in strikingly human terms when he said “to have the same chance of receiving relief, a country at the other side of the earth must have 160 times as many fatalities as a country at zero distance.”

In these strictly financial terms, it is clear that to wealthy nations like yours, black and brown lives matter less.

In drawing your attention to these numbers we are not attempting to appeal to your charitable spirit. As Sano has previously stated, “We’d like to make clear the difference between humanitarian aid and climate change compensation in the context of historical responsibility.”

More than 68 per cent of global warming that occurred from the start of the Industrial Revolution to 2005 can be attributed to the pollution created by just 10 countries. Canada is one of them. When responsibility for climate change is assigned per capita, Canada is among the three countries most responsible for this crisis.

Around the world, thousands of Filipinos can be found working diligently as domestic workers. For many of our migrant brothers and sisters, cleaning up other people’s messes is a means of survival. However, the loss and damage caused by climate change is one mess we refuse to clean up.

When all is accounted for, this tally amounts to moral bankruptcy. In Paris, Canada must endorse the principle of loss and damage and agree to create a separate financing mechanism as compensation.

The manner in which these funds are delivered is of great importance. In the Philippines, the government left us without adequate assistance to complement our own rebuilding efforts for two years, before adding insult to injury with condolences for delayed, divisive, conditional and corruption-riddled assistance. However, these issues should not discourage Western nations from paying their climate debt. Instead they should encourage you to work directly with impacted communities in developing funding models that make the most effective use of these critical resources.

2. Update immigration policy. Why? Because it’s 2015.

International refugee law was written over 50 years ago to deal with the refugee crisis created by World War II. Over a year ago the UN warned that more people had then been forcibly displaced than at any time since that conflict. But people are migrating for many reasons other than war.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees found that 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters in 2009, the last year it published such a report. The Red Cross estimates there are more environmental refugees than political refugees fleeing from violent conflict.

Yet, international law still does not recognize “environmental refugees.” This means that millions of people the world over do not qualify for material support because we are operating with a definition that hasn’t been updated in the last half century. Your government is well positioned to take the lead in updating international law to reflect the true nature of the migrant crisis. You can start by signing the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

Over four million people were displaced by Typhoon Haiyan. As a people, Filipinos have been repeatedly dispossessed, starting with European colonization centuries ago. Where once Western powers used military force to rob us of our land and resources, now climate disasters — fuelled by your pollution and excessive mining extraction — continue this cycle of displacement and exploitation.

More than two million Filipinos work overseas, and climate change guarantees that this need to move in order to survive will only increase. In Canada over 490,000 people are here under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, over 60 per cent of whom are from the Philippines. As such, we join our brothers and sisters in the decades-old call to end the exploitation of migrant workers by ceasing the limits on migrant worker permits and allowing for permanent residence on arrival.

Those who close borders would have us believe that the flow of human compassion stops at state boundaries. This of course is not the case. The need to act on this truth has perhaps never been clearer. Your vow to accept more Syrian refugees in the midst of this crisis shows that on some level you recognize this too. We appreciate these compassionate steps but real action on climate change must go deeper than these band-aid solutions.

Immigration policy and climate policy are intertwined and must be developed, to borrow your own words, “from the heart outwards.”

3. The Harper government signed a secretive trade deal that will make it virtually impossible to control big polluters. You can stop it.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is a massive global trade deal that rewrites the rules governing 40 per cent of the world’s economy. It would give corporations new powers to sue governments that enforce policies infringing on potential future profits. For example, right now Canadian-Australian mining company OceanaGold is using a similar trade agreement to sue the El Salvadorian government for enforcing a mining ban that was demanded by the people. This Canadian corporation is attempting to claim US $301 million in lost profits — a sum equivalent to El Salvador’s three-year budget for health, education, and public security.

The TPP would give the corporations most responsible for climate pollution a new global system of private courts in which to defend their profits by overruling health and environmental regulations. A report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Scott Sinclair found that thanks to similar investor-state arbitration mechanisms that were enshrined in the North American Free Trade Agreement 20 years ago, “Canada has now been sued more times through investor-state dispute settlement than any other developed country in the world.” The majority of these disputes involve corporations challenging environmental laws. Canadian taxpayers have spent an estimated $65 million fighting these court cases while ultimately paying out $170 million in damages.

On the road to your election you repeatedly said that “governments may be able to issue permits, but only communities can grant permission.” Well, if your government ratifies the TPP you will need to revise this quote: “Governments may be able to issue permits, but only communities can grant permission ... and corporations will sue them both for a handout.”

If your government supports the TPP, you are giving the big polluters a golden key to get out of regulations designed to protect people’s health and security. From the ground zero of Typhoon Haiyan, we join our voices with the people's protest against economic policies that favour profits more than people. The TPP will pave the way for more Haiyan-like catastrophes in the Philippines and anywhere in the world.

4. Freeze tar sands expansion and commit to clean energy.

Last week when President Obama rejected your Keystone pipeline, he said, “If we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.” Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of Canada, has said that preventing the average global temperature from surpassing a 2 C increase over preindustrial temperatures — a key measure — could require leaving as much as two-thirds of the world’s proven fossil-fuel reserves in the ground.

Last year green-sector jobs in your own country surpassed oil sands employment. Yet your government still provides $34 billion in subsidized handouts to the fossil fuel industry.

We call on you to freeze the expansion of the tar sands and commit to a justice-based transition to a clean energy economy.

Your country can lead the way in demonstrating what a 21st-century energy democracy looks like. Communities should collectively control these new energy systems. The recently-released Leap Manifesto offers some concrete ideas on how to do this: “Create innovative ownership structures: democratically run, paying living wages and keeping much-needed revenue in communities. And Indigenous Peoples should be first to receive public support for their own clean energy projects. So should communities currently dealing with heavy health impacts of polluting industrial activity.”

December’s COP21 conference in Paris is a critical point for countries to come up with a meaningful and binding international agreement to address climate change. The urgency is real.

We continue our resolve to link our struggle for dignity, rights and justice with the global people’s movement that challenges the system causing environmental and climate destruction and breeding injustices that increase our vulnerability to climate change. We must intensify our demands for justice, holding the responsible ultimately accountable. Now is the time to end the climate crisis. Let the world know: our survival is non-negotiable.

Marissa Cabaljao is secretary general of The People Surge, the Philippines broadest alliance of Typhoon Haiyan Survivors.

Sean Devlin is a Filipino-Canadian filmmaker and climate justice activist.

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