Keynote Speech: “Is Climate Justice A Human Right?”

November 12, 2015

Keynote Speech of Senator Loren Legarda
“Is Climate Justice A Human Right?”
Climate Justice Forum organized by Justice Cecilia Muñoz Palma Foundation
12 November 2015 | AIM Conference Center, Makati City


I am an environmentalist and a climate activist and one of the reasons I am such is because of my two sons who are now in their 20s. By the year 2030, they will be in their 30s; by the year 2050 they will be in their late 50s. I want them to live in a safe, healthy, resilient and sustainable environment.


I am also a public servant, thus, my work is not only limited to what I can do for my sons, but also for your sons and daughters, for the children of the poor, the vulnerable, our rural population, the indigenous peoples, for all Filipinos.


Do you have young children or grandchildren, or do you plan to have children? If your answer is yes, consider this:


“The day would not be too far when all else would be lost not only for the present generation, but also for those to come—generations which stand to inherit nothing but parched earth incapable of sustaining life. [1]


I have just quoted the Philippine Supreme Court in its landmark decision 22 years ago that upheld the concept of inter-generational responsibility—the responsibility of every generation to ensure that succeeding generations will continue to enjoy a balanced and healthful ecology.


Today, those lines are prophetic. But in 15, 30 or 50 years from now, this message could easily pass as a fact.


You ask me: Is climate justice a human right? First, allow me to give a brief history of how climate change has been understood in the Philippine context.


Since my first term in 1998 in the Senate, my advocacy has been consistent and clear – protect our environment, adapt to climate change and mitigate its impacts. For many years now, I have called for stronger support for disaster resilience.


To many, climate change was a totally esoteric concept that was best left for the experts and scientists to handle. It was an abstract term for many.


In 2008, as part of my commitment to the 2008 Manila Call for Action, I filed a resolution recommending the creation of a standing committee on climate change in the Philippine Senate.


There was defiance at first. Some of my colleagues then thought it was not necessary because there was already a committee on environment and natural resources. But I stood my ground because I knew that climate change is not just an environmental issue; it is an all-encompassing threat to our basic human rights.


In December 2008, the Senate Committee on Climate Change was created to ensure the implementation of laws as well as the sustainability of initiatives for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation in the Philippines.


In 2009, the Philippine Climate Change Act was passed into law. This measure created the Climate Change Commission, headed by no less than the President of the Philippines, and mainstreams climate change adaptation in various phases of policy formulation.


The passage of the Climate Change Act was followed by the enactment of the Philippine National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act. Representing a shift from mere response in times of disasters, the law promotes a comprehensive National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan that strengthens the capacity of the national government and the local government units together with partner stakeholders, to build the disaster resilience of communities.


The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) hailed these two measures as among the world’s best laws on disaster resilience. The greater challenge, however, was to translate national policies, plans and programs into local action with measurable gains.


Even with these laws, it had to take extreme weather events such as Ondoy and Pepeng, Sendong, Pablo, Yolanda, the habagat-induced rains, and the stronger episodes of El Niño, among many other disasters, for us to realize that climate change is real and our nation is among the most vulnerable to its impacts.


The phenomenon of climate change is so complex and overreaching in its impacts that we should now begin calling it the ‘climate crisis.’


This climate crisis affects food, water, settlement, jobs, livelihood, human welfare, safety and security, poverty reduction, economic growth, and, consequently, our overall pursuit of sustainable development.


We have seen many times the impact of natural hazard extremes and the prevalence of disaster risk, exacerbated by climate change. They kill thousands of individuals, wipe out cities and communities, and undo years of development gains.


But what has caused this constant warming of the Earth’s temperature?


Key findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed that climate change is “unequivocal” and that there is 95 percent likelihood that human activity is the cause of global warming.[2]


Human activity released 545 gigatons of carbon dioxide—the main greenhouse gas from 1750 to 2011. Of the carbon dioxide emitted, 2/3 was due to the burning of fossil fuels with 1/3 caused by deforestation and land-use change. In the last decade however, 90 percent of rise in carbon dioxide levels was due to burning of fossil fuels.


Unless drastic cuts are introduced, global temperatures are projected to increase by 0.3 to 4.8 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.


The average global temperature has risen by 0.8°C since 1880. At this level, we are already experiencing unprecedented extreme weather events.


Recently, the United Kingdom’s Met Office said that 2015 could be the year when we hit the 1°C as figures from January to September this year are already 1.02°C above the average between 1850 and 1900.[3]


Professor Stephen Belcher of the Met Office said: “This is the first time we’re set to reach the 1°C marker and it’s clear that it is human influence driving our modern climate into uncharted territory.”


The IPCC predicts that a 1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius increase in global mean temperatures from pre-industrial levels threatens extinction of 20-30 percent of all species.[4]


If the world goes business as usual, there will be 6 million deaths per year by 2030, close to 700,000 of which will be due to climate change.[5]


The World Bank projects that under a 2°C scenario, there will be a 20 percent decline in water availability for many regions and 15–20 percent decrease in crop yield.


Moreover, with warming of up to 2°C, sea-level rise is projected to be around 70 centimeters. Sea level rise, floods that damage fish farms, and the increased acidification of the oceans by 2050 could reduce farmed fish yield by 90 percent.


If we reach 4°C warming, the IPCC further predicts “…severe and widespread impacts on unique and threatened systems, substantial species extinction, large risks to global and regional food security, and the combination of high temperature and humidity compromising normal human activities…”


These impacts can happen within our lifetime. We are talking about scenarios 15, 35, and 85 years from now, all within this century.


I have always asked myself, will I let my two sons, my nieces and nephews, my future grandchildren suffer knowing that I have the chance to avert a global crisis? Definitely not. That is why I am in front of all of you today. This has been my fifth speaking engagement about climate change this week alone. I have had hundreds in my three terms as senator, and I will not tire of encouraging people to join the climate movement if in every speech I deliver, I am able to inspire even one soul to act now and to enjoin others to do the same.


Towards the end of November, delegations from 196 member states of the United Nations will gather in France to negotiate for our future.


The event is known as the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or UNFCCC, the UN treaty that aims to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system. This year is the 21st conference, thus it is called COP21.


The COP has been, in the past years, a conference of all talk and no action. No action in the sense that the world has not done what it should have been doing the last decades to avert the climate crisis.


We are now scrambling to limit global warming to less than 2°C. But why only now when we could have started 20 years ago?


The UNFCCC has received 154 Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which are country commitments for reducing greenhouse gas emissions after the year 2020. But these submissions are inadequate as the combined commitments as computed now would still lead to 2.7°C global warming by 2030.


We need to do more and certainly we cannot go business as usual.


Earlier this week, senior officers of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of 20 nations most vulnerable to climate change impacts, gathered in Manila ahead of COP21. The Philippines is the CVF Chair for this year and we have agreed that we must no longer just plead for the rest of the developed nations to commit to limit global warming to less than 2°C. We demand that the world join us to reach the target of a 1.5°C goal to prevent any further risks to present and future generations.


We are in the position to demand because as developing nations, who are the least emitters of carbon, we bear the brunt of climate change.


A study by DARA commissioned by the Climate Vulnerable Forum titled Climate Vulnerability Monitor: A Guide to the Cold Calculus of a Hot Planet, states that “a significant share of the global population would be directly affected by inaction on climate change. The global figures mask enormous costs that will, in particular, hit developing countries and above all the world’s poorest groups.”


The COP21 is a crucial platform to compel nations to carry out urgent climate action through ambitious targets in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and providing assistance to vulnerable and developing countries in reducing their disaster risks and building their resilience to weather and climate extremes.


The world cannot afford further delays, more so the vulnerable people who end up as climate refugees in their own communities, they who suffer again and again from tragedies brought about by a climate crisis not of their own doing. These vulnerable sectors include indigenous peoples, farmers, fisherfolk, persons with disabilities, women, children and the elderly.


For the sake of the vulnerable, we seek climate justice now to restore the dignity of those suffering and to strengthen the resilience of the poor and recovering.


For the sake of future generations, we seek a commitment to act now and to implement a holistic solution.


There is no reason to hesitate or delay action on a challenge so compelling, on a threat to humanity so clear and present.  For every second that ticks away is but a second closer to the next calamity.


The Philippines should achieve its INDC goal of 70% GHG emissions reduction. The government must commit to this and draw sectoral roadmaps that will lead to this goal, especially in energy, transport, forestry and agriculture.


As a developing nation, it is understandable that the Philippines needs more power, but it cannot be “we need power at all costs and we will develop at all costs.”


They say that coal is cheap. I say, coal is not cheap. Coal affects our health, kills biodiversity and the environment, affects our waters and pollutes the air we breathe.


We are a country rich in renewable energy—the amount of sun and wind is more than enough to power our entire country many times over. We have the Renewable Energy Law and though we may not totally ban coal, we should have a good energy mix where there is a bias for renewables.


It is on this note that I welcome the world’s first climate change and human rights petition in the Philippines against the Carbon Majors or the world’s biggest polluters, including the largest fossil fuel companies, which are responsible for an estimated 65 percent of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions between 1751 and 2013. The petition is spearheaded by Greenpeace Southeast Asia and Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, along with 12 other organizations and more than a thousand Filipinos.


We must all work towards building a sustainable and resilient community, one that respects biodiversity and corrects the misconception that natural resources are infinite. Our extractive and consumptive practices must change. Greed must cease. Let us all become true stewards of the environment.


Let us altogether reduce people’s vulnerability to disasters and the impacts of the climate crisis. The task of reducing disaster risks in the context of a changing global climate has become synonymous to securing humanity and achieving the future we want for all.


Let us ensure effective risk governance and strict enforcement of all our laws on the environment, climate change, and disaster risk reduction.


Let us ensure that land use plans are risk-sensitive, and that our cities and human settlements are inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.


Let us ensure that multi-hazard early warning systems are in place and strengthened, efficiently and effectively communicating to the public the impacts and risks from expected hazards and the appropriate action to take to prevent the loss of lives and livelihoods.


Let risk assessment, contingency planning, business continuity planning, and emergency response preparedness be a routine—in all sectors whether government, civil society, business, academe as well as the media—and at all levels.


At the international level, let us begin exploring compensation and liability solutions to make those responsible accountable for their actions, be they countries or large corporations. The loss and damage mechanism being created in the UNFCCC is a good start and we must advance its implementation.


Climate justice also requires putting into place a human rights framework for climate change. This can be done by recognizing the natural and indispensable link between human rights and climate change in the COP21 Agreement. All persons have the right to ecological security. All persons have the right to live without fear of their homes, livelihoods and cultures being threatened with extinction because of the climate crisis. All persons have the right to life, and that includes the right to survive and thrive as human beings.


In closing, I urge everyone, let us all be champions of change for the future that we want. Let us seek climate justice because it is our human right.


We all live in one Earth. Climate change is now in our midst and it imparts to us the lesson that we do not own the planet, but are mere dwellers and stewards of its resources.


Each of us has opportunities to make a difference for our future. We must lead the way towards meaningful change—change in the way we think, change in the way we live, and change in the way we pursue the development and the future we long for—for my sons, for your daughters, for our grandchildren, for all of humanity, for all species in the world, and for our own Mother Earth.


Thank you.



[1] Supreme Court en banc Decision, Oposa vs. Factoran, G.R. No. 101083 July 30, 1993.

[2] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 5th Assessment Report

[3] Warming set to breach 1C threshold, BBC News, Science and Environment, 9 November 2015

[4] IPCC 4th Assessment Report (AR4)

[5] Climate Vulnerability Monitor: A Guide to the Cold Calculus of a Hot Planet