ENVIRONMENT: Climate change is here

“When the doctor tells you that your cholesterol is too high, you tend to listen and change your diet. When the world’s climate scientists tell us that temperatures are rising to dangerous levels, we should heed their advice. It’s time to give up climate change, it’s bad for our health.” – Christiana Figueres, chair of the Lancet Countdown advisory board

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In the past, Mindanao was considered as typhoon-free but now cyclones no longer spare the island. This was particularly true in Davao Region, whose inhabitants never experience typhoons in their lives. Not until Typhoon Pablo (international name: Washi) made landfall late on December 3, 2012. The storm caused widespread destruction in the region.

Pablo packed winds of up to 175 mph when it struck the region, bringing torrential rains that flattened entire villages, leaving thousands homeless, as well as washing out roads and bridges needed by rescue personnel trying to reach stricken regions.

“Electrical poles snapped like matchsticks as Pablo’s devastating winds howled across the island of Mindanao, leaving large swaths of territory without power. It was the strongest weather disturbance to hit the south in two decades,” a government official said

Arthur Uy, then the governor of the worst-hit province, Compostela Valley, reported that raging water and mud from the mountains had swept through school buildings, covered courts, town halls, and health centers where residents had taken shelter. “The waters came so suddenly and unexpectedly, and the winds were so fierce; that compounded the loss of lives and livelihood,” Uy told Reuters.

A year earlier, in 2011, Mindanao was also hit by another strong typhoon named Sendong (international name: Washi). On December 16, severe tropical storm Sendong brought 10 hours of torrential rains that triggered disastrous flash flooding over Mindanao, an area that rarely experiences tropical cyclones.

More than 200 millimeters of rain was reported in places where rivers were already swollen. During the overnight hours, hundreds of people were killed as flood waters and landslides destroyed homes along mountain sides. In some locations, flood waters rose by 3.3 meters in less than an hour. Residents impacted by these flood waters were forced to seek refuge on their roofs amidst gust winds of 90 kilometers per hour.

Climate change is cited as the most likely culprit of damaging typhoons. “Weather patterns could become unpredictable, as would extreme weather events, hurricanes could become much stronger and more frequent,” wrote Lulu Bucay in a climate change brochure produced by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

“By the end of this century, tropical cyclones are expected to intensify, with a projected increase in the average instantaneous maximum wind velocity at the Philippine coast,” the executive report of “Getting A Grip on Climate Change in the Philippines,” a World Bank publication, confirmed.

The “Global Climate Risk Index 2015” listed the Philippines as the number one most affected country by climate change. “This is in part to its geography,” wrote the EcoWatch in its website. “The Philippines is located in the western Pacific Ocean, surrounded by naturally warm waters that will likely get even warmer as average sea-surface temperature continues to rise.”

With over 7,500 islands and situated in the so-called Ring of Fire, the Philippines has to bear the brunt of climate change. As early as 2010, a mapping assessment was carried out for each of the country’s provinces.

“Sixteen provinces of the Philippines ranked among the top 50 most vulnerable in Southeast Asia,” reports “Hotspots! Mapping Climate Change Vulnerability in Southeast Asia.” “High exposure to climate hazards, especially tropical cyclones, floods and landslides, is the dominant factor behind the vulnerability of these provinces.”

The planet has been warming since prehistoric times, but man’s tampering with the environment has made the temperature change faster. “While human activities during the past century have damaged a long list of natural systems, most of these problems are local or regional in scope and can be reversed in years or decades if sufficient effort is exerted,” wrote Christopher Flavin, author of Slowing Global Warming: A Worldwide Strategy.

“Changes to the earth’s atmosphere, on the other hand, are global and – for all practical purposes – irreversible not only in our lifetime but in our children’s and grandchildren’s as well,” he added.

It was Dr. James E. Hansen of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration who first raised the issue. In 1988, he told a Senate hearing that “the greenhouse effect is changing our climate now.”

Robert James Bidinotto, in a Reader’s Digest article, explained greenhouse effect in this manner: “When sunlight warms the earth, certain gases in the lower atmosphere, acting like the glass in a greenhouse, trap some of the heart as it radiates back into space. The greenhouse gases, primarily water vapor and including carbon dioxide, methane and man-made chlorofluorocarbons, warm our planet, making life possible.

“If they were more abundant, greenhouse gases might trap too much heat. Venus, for example, has 60,000 times more carbon dioxide in its atmosphere than Earth, and its temperature averages above 800 degrees Fahrenheit. But if greenhouse gases were less plentiful or entirely absent, temperatures on Earth would average below freezing,” Bidinotto wrote.

“As long as the amount of greenhouse gases remains constant, along with other climatic factors, the temperature on the planet remains relatively steady,” H. Steven Dashefsky pointed out in his book, Environmental Literacy. “Increased amounts of greenhouse gases due to human activities increase the greenhouse effect and are believed to lead to global warming.”

Take the case of carbon dioxide, which plays an important role in controlling the earth’s surface temperature. Studies show the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been rising over the past few decades. Burning gasoline for vehicles and burning coal and oil to generate electricity are believed responsible for this increase.

Methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas that is released into the air. Although methane spends less time in the atmosphere (12 years) than carbon dioxide, it’s more efficient at trapping radiation, according to some studies. “Methane is 25 times greater to impact climate change than carbon dioxide in a 100-year period,” a study said.

A third culprit, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), are synthetic or man-made chemicals used as aerosol, repellants, blowing agents for plastic-foams, refrigerants and solvents. Freon was the original CFC developed in the 1930s.

Then, there’s nitrous oxide, released both by bacterial process and by the combustion of fossil fuels, especially coal and fuel oil. Recent studies have shown that deforestation, particularly clear cutting, can increase by two times the local emissions of nitrous oxide.

There is no turning back when it comes to climate change. It is for real and it is happening right now. In 2008, during the 11th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Dr. Simon Donner of the University of British Columbia embarked on a metaphor for climate change.

“The climate is like this big ship. We are all on this big ship and the problem is once you hit the brakes it takes a long time for the ship to actually slow down and stop,” Dr. Donner told the participants.

“In our case the ship is the Titanic and we are going to hit the iceberg. It is going to be almost impossible for us not to hit the iceberg at this point. What we need to do is everything we can to put the brakes on, to slow the ship down and move the iceberg a little bit. The time for emission reductions isn’t so much now as it was 20 years ago.”

To think, the Philippines is a minor contributor to global warming. The World Bank report said that the country ranks 43rd in terms of global greenhouse gas emissions and 112th in terms of emissions intensity.

Meanwhile, the climate change continues to wreak its havoc around the world. “Climate change is taking place before our eyes and will continue to do so as a result of the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which have risen constantly and again reached new records,” deplored Michel Jarraud, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization. (To be continued)

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