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Climate Change and Poverty:

Navigating the Tragedy of the Commons and How Mediation Can Offer Solutions

by Kiefer Sy

Climate Change and Poverty

The tragedy of the commons, first introduced by William Lloyd and popularized by Garrett Hardin, highlights the consequences of individuals depleting shared resources for their self-interest, leading to the detriment of the collective good. The metaphor serves as a poignant reminder of the challenges arising from the exploitation of shared resources. This concept is particularly relevant in the context of climate change, a global tragedy of the commons with far-reaching impacts on humanity. The under-regulated exploitation of common goods across several sectors compounded to make this proverbial bed that we might have to lie in. In this article, we will explore the key areas where climate change affects humanity, but with a focus on the disproportionate burden it places on marginalized communities and those living in poverty.

In February 2021, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres recognized climate change as a “crisis multiplier and amplifier”. Eight of the ten countries hosting the most multilateral peace operations personnel in 2018 are located in areas highly exposed to climate change. One of humanity’s earliest known examples of war, Site 117 or Jebel Sahaba in the Nile Valley showed evidence of interpersonal conflict and violence driven by high climatic variability and drastic environmental changes. The climatic changes at the time– between 11,450 and 16,650 BC–displaced and drove culturally distinct groups into frequent violent conflicts over increasingly limited resources.

The data on internally displaced people support Guterres’s statement. Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council which established the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) stated that “conflict and disasters combined in 2022 to aggravate people’s pre-existing vulnerabilities and inequalities, triggering displacement on a scale never seen before”. The IDMC recorded 60.9 million new internal displacements worldwide in 2022. This is a 60% increase from the previous year. While the invasion of Ukraine displaced 17 million people in 2022, natural disasters continued to account for most new internal displacements at 32.6 million.

Other parts of the world are not exempt from the growing impacts of climate change. It is a global tragedy of the commons after all. Based on IDMC data, the Philippines recorded 5.4m internal displacements in 2022 due to disasters with storms accounting for 4.6m, floods for 614k, and earthquakes for 205k. This is a vast number of people and this is happening worldwide. Therein lies the tragedy. We know that climate inaction will lead to detrimental effects for all but we collectively drag our feet. France, which played a prominent role in the design of the 2015 treaty on climate change adopted by 196 parties, was not able to meet its own targets in part due to the gilet jaune or yellow vest protests against a tax increase on fossil fuels.

We find ourselves in what climate activists call a “doom loop”. As climate impacts increase in severity, our focus is diverted from reducing carbon emissions and combatting climate change to just coping with its impacts.

This speaks to the level of disproportionate burden for people and communities at the margins where the choice between “end of the world” and “end of the month” becomes a much easier decision to make.

Between the global concern over climate change and the challenges faced by nations worldwide, the Philippines stands as a poignant case study. Positioned in Southeast Asia -where sea levels are rising faster than any other part of the world-with nearly a quarter of its population living below the poverty line, the Philippines is no stranger to the challenges posed by our fast changing climate. The country’s vulnerability to extreme weather events, sea-level rise, and the disruption of vital industries make it a microcosm of the broader tragedy of the commons. In the face of this mounting crisis, it becomes evident that localized approaches and sustainable practices must be adopted to address the unique issues faced by the Philippine population.

Food security, access to water, and shelter are principal areas of concern given climate change impact. Climate change poses significant challenges to food security, affecting agricultural production and fisheries. Shifting weather patterns, such as more frequent droughts and floods, make farming increasingly difficult for rural communities. Worse still, the Philippines’ agricultural sector is characterized by small-scale family farms that largely have no savings and in some cases are trapped in a vicious cycle of debt. Small-scale fisherfolk face dwindling fish stocks due to the degradation of marine ecosystems caused by rising sea temperatures, pollution, and overfishing. Unable to find fish in municipal waters, these small-scale fisherfolk have to venture further out where they then contend with largescale commercial fishing operations, and experience conflict in disputed waters.

According to a 2018 study by the World Bank, a large share of poor households’ income in rural regions is linked with the fisheries sector. As climate change warms our seas and shifts ocean currents, areas conducive for fish also shift. These factors create more competition and conflict for those who rely on the fisheries sector for their livelihood. Meanwhile, a 2020 study found that if climate change effects are left unmitigated, by 2060 the Philippines is set to lose 18% of fisheries Gross Domestic Product. Although there are some efforts to protect fish stock through the establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPA), it still falls short due to several reasons. Some communities don’t believe in MPAs, which impose fishing bans and fishing seasons. In addition, others still use illegal fishing methods. MPAs tend to be confined within municipal waters whereas marine ecosystems do not abide by these municipal delineations.

Extreme weather events linked to climate change can disrupt access to water. Our recent water supply crisis saw the introduction of several projects to augment the supply and alleviate Metro Manila’s water supply problems.

Conflicts arise over the construction of large infrastructure projects, like the Kaliwa Dam, which can disenfranchise indigenous communities and displace them from their ancestral lands. In a Business Mirror article published on May 28, 2020, Save Kaliwa Dam Network (SKDN) spokesman Rovik S. Obanil is cited saying that non-revenue water (NRW), which is what Maynilad uses to refer to water produced but lost due to leakages or pilferage, amounts close to 80% of the water that Kaliwa Dam is expected to produce.

On top of the potential violation of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act or IPRA, the proposed project also threatens to inundate areas downstream (Tanay, Rizal and Gen. Nakar, Quezon). The watershed is also a forest reserve, with some areas being declared wildlife sanctuaries which are generally off-limits to development projects. The watershed is home to several endangered and vulnerable wildlife endemic to the Philippines such as the Philippine brown deer, Northern rufous hornbill, and the critically endangered Philippine eagle.

Shelter is another major concern affected by climate change. Vulnerable communities living in poverty, particularly those in informal settlements, are at greater risk when it comes to climate change-induced disasters. Those in low-lying areas are vulnerable to floods. Densely packed housing in informal settlements and slums combined with light materials that usually make up these homes leave them highly susceptible to neighborhood fires that consume thousands of houses in a matter of hours. This was the case in February 2023 when a fire broke out in the Poblacion District of Davao City. Some 1,200 houses were affected and the incident accrued an estimated P9M in damages.

As our climate continues to warm, storms pull in more water vapor and heat from the oceans. These typhoons, fed and strengthened by our warming atmosphere and oceans, will continue to intensify and wreak havoc on similarly built dwellings. 

A 2023 report by the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA) announced that Metro Manila is now seeing a sea level rise that is almost three times the global average. According to the report, rapid urban development and expansion activities created a coupling effect of land subsidence and sea level rise. A sea level rise of half an inch per year may not seem like much but this is the average. A coastal village north of Manila called Sitio Pariahan in Bulacan is sinking an inch and a half every year. What was once a thriving community with basketball tournaments and fiestas that drew in people from neighboring communities now has a basketball court that is fully submerged and attends mass with the lower halves of their bodies underwater. This could be the fate of 8.6 million Filipinos in Manila, Valenzuela, Bulacan, and Pasay if Climate Central simulations are to be believed. Using a new, high accuracy digital elevation model called Coastal-DEM (Coastal Digital Elevation Model), the New Jersey based science organization created predictions to assess the vulnerability of coastal communities to threats from sea level rise. Their research predicts that the aforementioned areas could likely be lower than the height of average annual coastal flood levels by 2050.

Urban space is another public resource or common good with a dearth of attention given to the equitable allocation of this resource. Urban planning, often an overlooked tragedy of the commons issue, plays a crucial role in managing limited public good. The focus on car-centric urban transportation design results in inefficient utilization of resources, leading to traffic congestion, massive economic loss, and increased carbon emissions.

In a 2018 study, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) said that traffic costs the Philippines 3.5 Billion Pesos in “lost opportunities” daily. That figure is expected to triple by 2030. Public transportation by its very name conveys the notion that it is a public good. The inability to regulate what is supposedly a common good incentivizes people who can afford a private vehicle at the expense of commuters, private motorists, and active transportation users.

Doom and gloom aside, dramatic change is possible. While climate change certainly applies a multiplier effect to risk especially for disadvantaged people and communities, it also presents an opportunity to come to a new understanding of our shared problem through a transformative process. Marginalized communities will be at the frontlines of climate change action and will be the first to undergo this transformative process.

MedNet partners are leading the way forward in this endeavor. The People’s Plan could be something to emulate. Faced with forced relocation after Typhoon Ondoy, the people of Manggahan organized to find an alternative to being relocated nearly 100 kilometers away. They formed the Alliance of People’s Organizations Along Manggahan Floodway (APOAMF). They consulted architects, engineers, and local and national government officials, to ensure that theirs would be a flood and typhoon-resistant housing complex. Through capacity building, informal settler communities can be empowered to organize their own communities, negotiate with government stakeholders, and create new housing to move into not far from their original location.

The People’s Plan is a blueprint that shows us what is possible when governments engage in dialogue with their constituents and allow them to collaborate on solutions.

The Philippines’ agricultural sector is characterized by small-scale family farms that largely have no savings and sometimes are trapped in debt. If the government cannot set up lending institutions and systems that are accessible for our farmers then perhaps in the short term they can mediate or negotiate with buyers on behalf of farmers to ensure that they get the best prices. In a similar vein to the urban housing struggle, smallholder farms have experienced relative success by joining multipurpose cooperatives. These organizations give them access to technical training and entrepreneurship to fetch better and sustained revenue through the pooling of crops and a negotiated agreement with a large buyer.

Efforts to protect marine ecosystems should also be intensified, with support for community-based MPAs. Capacitating these communities and encouraging networking among MPAs can enhance the efficacy of marine conservation efforts. In these pursuits, mediation techniques can help address conflicts arising from information gaps and competing interests.

Capacity building of IP communities that are best positioned to serve as stewards of watersheds is a crucial alternative to these mega-projects. We need to mediate between concerned stakeholders to find the best solution for the water crisis. It is immoral and deplorable that poor communities, farmers, fisherfolk, and indigenous peoples have to shoulder the burden that we are all responsible for. Water is inextricably linked to climate change and our irresponsible use of this valuable resource only aggravates the problem.

In the quest for solutions to climate change-induced challenges, mediation emerges as a valuable tool for alternative dispute resolution. By seeking options and solutions for mutual benefit and undergoing a transformative approach for disputing parties, mediation eases conflicts. This approach will be particularly crucial in the face of complex environmental disputes, where regulations and innovative solutions are imperative.

The tragedy of the commons presents a challenging conflict perspective that requires collective solutions. Climate change is one such global commons tragedy that will require collective solutions. We are talking about billions of people. It is going to take an unprecedented level of cooperation and trust. Mediation emerges as a potent intervention to manage, resolve, and regulate shared resources for the common good. This is especially true for government stakeholders and those in charge of policies.

By collaborating and exploring innovative solutions, we can steer the world toward a more sustainable and equitable future, where the impact of climate change on poverty-stricken communities is significantly mitigated.

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