Climate Change and Effects On The Philippines

By Henrylito D. Tacio

6 July 2010, Davao City. For more than three decades, scientists around the world have warned of dangerous changes in the atmosphere. Until recently, those warnings were regarded as uncertain predictions of possible problems in the distant future.

Not anymore. For instance, the ferocity of Tropical Storm “Ondoy” (international codename: Ketsana) shocked even seasoned experts in the Philippines where an average 20 typhoons hit every year, but they said it continued a recent pattern of unusually bad weather.

“Climate change is a global challenge that threatens every nation, no matter how large or small, wealthy or poor,” said US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “The threat is serious, it is urgent, and it is growing.”

It was Dr. James E. Hansen, of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), who first raised the problem of global warming. In 1988, he told an American Senate hearing that “the greenhouse effect is changing our climate now.”

In a Reader’s Digest article, author Robert James Bidinotto, explains greenhouse effect in these words: “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. These greenhouse gases, primarily water vapor and including carbon dioxide, methane and man-made chlorofluorocarbons, warm our planet, making life possible.”

“The global warming is very simple,” said Dr. Robert Watson, chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the 2007 co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. “We are increasing emissions of greenhouse gases and thus their concentrations in the atmosphere are going up. As these concentrations increase, the temperature of the earth rises.”

“While human activities during the past century have damaged a long list of nature systems, most of these problems are local or regional in scope and can be revered in years to decades if sufficient effort is exerted,” Christopher Flavin wrote in his book, Slowing Global Warming: A Worldwide Strategy. “Changes to the earth’s atmosphere on the other hand are global and irreversible not only in our lifetimes but in our children’s and grandchildren’s as well.”

IPCC projections indicate that, if emissions continue to rise at their current pace and are allowed to double from their pre-industrial level, the world will face an average temperature rise of around 3 degrees Centigrade this century.

“Climate change means much more than higher global temperatures,” pointed out Heherson T. Alvarez, who convened the Asia-Pacific Leaders Conference on Climate Change in Manila when he was still with the Senate. “Global warming could result in a wide range of catastrophic consequences.”

The Philippines, home to almost 90 million people, is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. One devastating effect: increase in the number of tropical cyclones and storms.  “Weather patterns could become unpredictable, as would extreme weather events, hurricanes could become much stronger and more frequent,” wrote Lulu Bucay in a brochure produced by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Weather specialist Edna Juanillo said the country normally experiences tropical cyclones up to 20 a year. But in recent years, stronger typhoons have become more frequent and devastating. In early 2007, three typhoons hit the country, with an unusual one in February triggering a landslide that killed 250 people in Southern Leyte province.

Dr. Rodel D. Lasco, a member of the IPCC, is very much aware of the devastation that climate change will likely bring among Filipinos. For one, the country “has a long coastline where millions of people live including in urban centers such as Metro Manila, Cebu, and Davao.”

With 43 percent of the population living on less than two dollars a day and with only one doctor for every 1,700 people, the impact of major disasters on the Philippines will become more devastating, according to the World Vision International.

As the world atmosphere warms under a greenhouse effect, scientists predict, the seas will rise – threatening to change the contours of coastlines. Fifteen of the 16 regions of the Philippines are vulnerable to sea level rise. 

A study conducted by the Philippine Country Study to Address Climate Change found that the Manila Bay is already subjected to several hazards, including flooding and storms. “Shoreline changes due to reclamation for housing, ports, coastal roads, buildings and other urbanized development are high, adding to an increased threat of inundation,” the study said.

Sulu is the province with the highest land area that is highly vulnerable to the sea-level rise. In this southern Philippines province, 90 percent of the land area of Pata municipality, and 34 percent of the land area of Marunggas municipality are vulnerable to the rise, according to Greenpeace, an international environment watch group.

Aside from Sulu, the other provinces vulnerable to sea level rise are Palawan, Zamboanga del Sur, Northern Samar, Zamboanga Sibugay, Basilan, Cebu, Davao del Norte, Bohol, Camarines Sur, Quezon, Tawi-Tawi, Masbate, Negros Occidental, Camarines Norte, Capiz, Catanduanes, Samar, Zamboanga del Norte, and Maguindanao.

Sea level rise would also endanger the drinking water quality and agricultural productivity, according to the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration.  This is due to possible salt intrusion in coastal soils and fresh water aquifers. Already, one of every five residents quaffs water from dubious sources in 24 provinces, the Philippine Human Development Report points out.

People are not the only that will likely be most affected. “Important ecosystems such as mangrove forests could also be lost,” warned Dr. Lasco, who is the country’s coordinator for the World Agroforestry Center. 

Mangroves serve as sanctuaries and feeding grounds for fish. They also aid in natural land reclamation. More importantly, they act as buffer or coastal zone stabilizer by reducing typhoons and storm wind damage.

Coral reefs, touted to be the “tropical rainforests of the sea,” are also at risk. The Philippines has about 27,000 square kilometers of coral reefs. Two-thirds of these are in Palawan and the Sulu Archipelago. An estimated 10-15 per cent of the total fisheries come from coral reefs. “Coral reef fish yields range from 20 to 25 metric tons per square kilometer per year for healthy reefs,” said Dr. Angel C. Alcala, former environment secretary.

Dr. Josefino Comiso, a senior research scientist at the NASA’s Cryospheric Sciences branch at the Goddard Space Flight Center, pointed out that slight change in ocean temperature will definitely affect the country’s coral reefs.

Increased temperature is one stressor that can cause coral reefs to bleach, which in turn diminish their growth and threaten critical habitat for fish and other marine resources. The Philippines is one of the Asian countries documented to experience coral bleaching. 

Climate change will push many wildlife species to extinction. “If climate zones shift, existing national parks or protected areas would no longer preserve the habitat for plants, fish, and wildlife for which they were established,” Bucay noted. Some of the species facing doom are Philippine Eagle, tamaraw, calamian deer, Philippine tarsier, and Cebu black shama.

Rising temperatures will also spur changes in rainfall patterns. “Weather patterns (in the Philippines) may change with projections of higher rainfall and drier summers,” Dr. Lasco said.  “These could adversely affect millions of hectares of farm lands. In the rainy season, there will be more frequent floods and in dry season, there will be less water available for irrigation. Overall, it threatens food security of our country.”

Many wildlife species are doomed to extinction. “If climate zones shift, existing national parks or protected areas would no longer preserve the habitat for plants, fish, and wildlife for which they were established,” wrote Bucay. “Few forests, for instance, could keep up with the predicted temperature change causing hard consequences on the species that depend on them.”

“Global climate change will have diverse, escalating impacts on human health,” observed Tony McMichael, a professor at Australia’s National University, who launched an international effort to study global environmental change and health.

For instance, climate change favors the spread of diseases. Greenpeace Philippines said climate change could amplify the proliferation and transmission of water-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever because of changes in water distribution, rising temperature and the explosion of microorganisms.

“No individual, no community and no state can today escape the effects of climate change,” said Lars Lokke Rasmussen, prime minister of Denmark. “Climate change knows no boundaries and is felt across the world.”

Katherine Richardson, a climate scientist at the University of Copenhagen, urged: “We have to act and we have to act now. We need to realize what a risk it is they are taking on behalf of their own constituents, the world’s societies and, even more importantly, future generations.”

 “Without effective action, climate change is going to be larger and more difficult to deal with than we thought,” warned Chris Field, coordinating lead author of the recent IPCC report.