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Climate Change 101

MedNet held an e-Learning forum entitled Climate Change and Mediation, which tackled the importance of mediation in the realm of climate change. Dr. Rodel Lasco, a respected natural scientist, explained the science of climate change.

Executive Director Oscar M. Lopez Center
Dr. Rodel Lasco | Oscar M. Lopez Center

I would like to talk to you about the basics of climate change and especially, the latest findings of the scientific community called the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change.

Our country is buffeted by typhoons and all sorts of climate hazards. We have to act now. The climate crisis is pressing. It’s affecting us all, not just the Philippines, but almost all countries of the world. And the basic science is simple. We learned about the greenhouse effect in our high school biology, in our college biology. We learned that the Earth is blanketed by a thin layer known as greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These greenhouse gases are essential for without them, our planet will be very cold -- almost -20 ° centigrade. That’s like living in a freezer. So, thanks to greenhouse gases that trap the heat, making our planet livable and very benign.

However, the issue is that the more greenhouse gases we have in the atmosphere, the warmer the planet becomes. Greenhouse gases are like blankets. We are happy to have one blanket. But as we add more layers of blanket, it becomes warmer and warmer.

We know that these greenhouse gases are coming mainly from fossil fuels. Around around 80% from fossil fuels. The rest come from agriculture, deforestation. Today, C02 (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere has already breached 408 ppm (parts per million). That is why CO2 in the atmosphere is the most monitored greenhouse gas by scientists.

In the past one-and-a-half years, three successive reports have come out in the scientific community -- the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC). The first report is The Physical Science which came out in 2021. The one on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability came out in 2022, and, finally, book three is all about Mitigation, which came out middle of last year. My assignment today is to try to summarize those findings so we can understand the latest discourse on climate change. These reports, by the way, are all available in the IPCC website. The report on (Physical) Science unequivocally concludes that human activities are already influencing the climate. It means that our activities are already warming the atmosphere, ocean and land. Humans are affecting weather (resulting in) climate extremes in every region across the globe. Scientists very seldom make unequivocal conclusions. Most of the time, they have uncertainties. But in this case, scientists around the world are already very sure.

One important figure in the report shows that our planet has already warmed by more than 1°C, as revealed by monitoring stations, compared to the 1850s at the start of the industrial revolution -- when humans started emitting from fossil fuels. Some of us would wonder why that is an issue when we actually experience 5°C to 10°C change in temperature on a daily basis. But that’s not a good analogy. This is more about the measure of energy out planet gets. The better analogy, therefore, is that of our body. Normal body temperature is 36°C to 37°C. When it rises by 1°C, we feel sick already; when it increases by 2°C, we find it hard to get up. If our body temperatures hit 40°C, some of us might already collapse or slip into coma. So, at 1°C increase in global temperature, our planet is already running a fever.

The IPCC reports that the temperature increase is experienced in all regions of the world. The IPCC adds that global temperature is likely to increase by up to 5°C or even more if we don’t do anything. With regard to rainfall, models show that change in climate greatly affect the amount of rain received by specific areas. In addition, sea level is rising. The models predict that by the of the century, sea level would have risen by one meter. When temperature rises, water expands. Too, the glaciers in the North Pole and the South Pole are slowly melting.

In the Philippines, the data of PAGASA (Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration) show that in the last 50 years or so the national temperature has risen by 0.68°C. The modeling made by PAGASA also shows that our temperature will keep on rising, depending on scenarios, and is likely to rise up to almost 5°C. Again, think of our body temperatures.

When it comes to rainfall, PAGASA predicts that every December, January and February of each year, there will be more rain in Luzon and less in Visayas and Mindanao. From March to May, there will be little changes. From September to November, almost the whole of the country will receive lesser rainfall. With lesser rainfall, we are likely to experience water shortage. With more rain, floods and landslides are more likely.

As to sea level rise, modelling stations in Legaspi and Cebu show a rising trend. What is worrisome is that sea level rise in the Philippines happens more rapidly by almost double to triple compared to the global average. And again, according to PAG-ASA, 6% by 2050 and 17% by 2100, about 20 million Filipinos, shall be affected. Around 60% percent of our population leave near the sea.

Projections of global mean sea level change (relative to 1900) under different emission scenarios
Change in Sea level

Studies on the effect of climate change on typhoons are not yet conclusive. But based on three out of five models drawn by PAGASA, there will be less typhoons visiting the Philippines. Yet, these fewer typhoons are likely to be more intense.

The Working Group that reported on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability reached the same conclusion as the first Working Group: Unequivocal. There is strong evidence, according to the report, that climate change will have tremendous effect on human wellbeing, on the planet and the natural systems. Another conclusion is that absent a concerted global action, we shall miss the rapidly closing window. The IPCC said that we only have until 2030 to act. Otherwise, Once we breach 1.5°C temperature increase -- and we are now very close to that -- our planet will gravely change. Up 3.3 to 3.6 billion people around the world are highly vulnerable to climate change, the report added. The impacts can be in the form of heat stress that can lead to various illnesses and stroke, water shortage or too much water thus flooding, food insecurity, among others.

But the adaptation part of the report is good news. It concludes that there is adaptation going on all over the world. However, adaptation is of uneven distribution. More developed countries move faster because they have resources. 

Also, most of the adaptation actions nowadays mainly focused on the immediate and the near-term. For instance, when there is a destructive typhoon that hit Visayas, our resources are directed to Visayas. That is, of course, expected in a developing country like the Philippines because we have scarce resources. But then, we also need to address the long-term. The report cites a lot of examples on this, e.g., for cities and urban centers, there are nature-based and engineering approaches, green and blue spaces, urban agriculture, safety nets, wider benefits to public health and to ecosystem conservation. Thus, the report concludes that we have a lot of adaptation options, emphasizing Climate Resilient Development (CRD) for countries. It is important that development be climate resilient.

In the Philippines, forest fires are very likely due to extreme heat. The livelihoods of uplanders, especially indigenous peoples living in this forest areas, Will be affected. Food security will be endangered due to decreased production, impacting millions of farmers, caused by water shortage or oversupply of it. In the coastal zone, sea level rise will lead to displacement of people living along the coast and destruction of ecosystem like mangroves. Energy production, delivery and consumption is also likely to suffer due, for example, to strong typhoons that can destroy facilities. In urban centers, strong typhoons can destroy infrastructures or bring about deaths.

How do we become more resilient?

We should support better livelihoods, timely access to right information, collective action and perhaps, peace efforts can come into the picture as a cross-cutting intervention.

Without peace, there will be no livelihoods (and vice-versa. - Ed.). Without peace, people cannot act collectively, cannot have access to information, and cannot conserve and rehabilitate the ecosystem. Nature-based solutions are important, such as, conserving native trees and species and promoting forest watersheds, among many other approaches. There are also highly technical solutions, like molecular, genetic and crop-breeding work, such as, breeding flood tolerant rice species as what the IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) is doing.

With regards Mitigation, we have to target the sources of greenhouse gases. Much of these come from energy, then industrial processes, agriculture, land use change and forestry. But the main culprit are fossil fuels for transport, manufacturing, etc. The Philippines’ 2010 data show that energy is our main source of greenhouse gases, followed by industrial processes, agriculture and waste. But our land use and forestry show negative emission because forests absorb carbon dioxide.

There are a lot of practical ways we can do to reduce the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We can reduce the consumption of fuel, paper and water because all of these produce emissions. The less we use our vehicles, the less we use air conditioning, the more we adopt natural ways of doing things, the more we can help. Watching our eating habits is also important. Without advocating that we stop eating meat, we should remember that raising meat sources has more carbon footprint compared to growing vegetables. Unwise eating habits also produce a lot of waste. It is important that we reduce our waste generation because landfills emit a lot of methane, which is actually more toxic than CO2.

Restoring and maintaining forests is very important. Trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere. The more forests we have, the more carbon in the biomass and less in the atmosphere. Tree planting, care and maintenance increases carbon stocks. But when we cut trees, especially when we burn, we also reduce stocks and emit this carbon to the atmosphere. Other ways include renewable energy. We have all of these sources of renewable energy: geothermal, hydro, wind, solar. Adopting sound agricultural practices, such as, the alternate wetting and drying technology reduces methane emissions in farms. Rice paddies emit methane.

I’ll leave you with this: climate is rapidly changing as we have seen due to human activities. But we can do something about it as we have seen in the adaptation report and mitigation report. And as we are so vulnerable to climate change, we have to deepen our resilience so that whatever comes in the future -- despite the uncertainties -- we will be able to adjust and adapt to the changing climate.

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