Filipino students join climate strike
TACLOBAN CITY, Leyte — Nearly six years after Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan), Giela Ann Delleva still breaks into tears whenever she remembers what her family went through after the most powerful tropical cyclone to hit land flattened her hometown of Guiuan in Samar province.
“It was so difficult because our hometown suddenly felt unfamiliar,” she said.
Delleva was only 12 when Yolanda, with monstrous winds of more than 300 kilometers per hour, made the first of six landfalls in Guiuan on Nov. 7, 2013.
“It doesn’t feel like six years ago,” Delleva, now 18 and a college student said, wiping away her tears. “It feels like it all happened just yesterday.”
Struggle to rebuild lives
Stories of surviving one of the world’s most powerful storms are the single thread that links the lives of people in Eastern Visayas, where the struggle to rebuild lives after losing loved ones and homes persists.
For the young people who had witnessed the devastation, Yolanda ushered in a cruel awakening to the catastrophic effects of climate change.
On Friday, as they gathered and raised their voices at a climate strike here, their painful memories, along with their shared uncertainties about the future, served as backdrop for their calls to the local government to treat the climate crisis as an emergency.
They were not alone. They joined nearly 4 million young people in more than 150 countries in a global action from Sept. 20 to 27 inspired mainly by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg.
The young climate activist began the Fridays for Future strike in front of her country’s parliament over a year ago. She was 15 when she took time off from school to demonstrate in front of the Swedish parliament, holding up a sign calling for stronger climate action.
After Thunberg addressed the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference, student climate strikes took place every week in other countries.
It has since snowballed into a global phenomenon.
Ronan Napoto, a 21-year-old who was among the principal organizers of the local strike, said that more than anyone else, people in Eastern Visayas knew and felt the effects of the climate crisis.
“Yolanda was the first time I felt that it was the end of everything, that I won’t be able to go to school, that I won’t be able to pursue my dreams,” he said.
Napoto, who was 15 when Yolanda struck, said the young survivors wanted their stories and voices to serve as inspiration for others to act with urgency on the climate crisis.
“It’s scary to think that Yolanda would be the new normal,” he said. “We don’t want anyone else to experience what we did.”
Government figures had placed the death toll at 6,300, with more than 1,000 missing, but residents and people’s organizations believe the deaths are actually twice or triple in number, with children and other vulnerable residents of the region bearing the brunt of the disaster.
Not just victims
But for Marinel Ubaldo, who lived through the destruction brought by Yolanda in her town of Salcedo in Eastern Samar, the young people’s collective action is to show that they are not just victims.
“We’re not just vulnerable or marginalized people. We are standing up for our own … We are not just simply on social media, but we are actually watching what the adults are doing,” said the 22-year-old climate activist.
The bigger challenge, she said, is the deafness of policymakers and corporations to the voice of the youth clamoring for a better future. “Even if we are already knocking on their doors, they are still not listening to us,” she said.
More than 14,000 kilometers away in New York City, where Thunberg addressed a 200,000-strong crowd of young protesters, the words of the Swedish climate activist resonated with the young people here in Tacloban, inspiring them to stand up for the planet.
Their creative placards reflected their fear for what lies ahead of them, but also their hope for a better future.
“There is no Planet B,” one sign read, while another said, “Yolanda changed my life. Don’t let another Yolanda change yours.”
Helen Ruth Chua, whose coastal home in Tacloban City was among those swept away by the storm, said she felt Yolanda had left behind a “woke” generation.
“They say we’re just young, what can we do? But I refuse to conform with that notion,” the 21-year-old college graduate said, as she carried a placard that called for “system change, not climate change.”
Chua added: “Instead of feeling afraid for the future, I feel more enlightened to do something.”
In the City of Calapan, Oriental Mindoro province, Grade 10 student Mary Therese Catapang said Thunberg’s activism had inspired her to persevere despite people’s comments that she was too young to care about the environment.
“Sometimes I cry because I feel so alone in the classroom. I keep encouraging, some listen, but they [don’t take any action],” Catapang, 15, said.
In front of city hall on Friday, Catapang said she was begging the local government to exert more effort to raise environmental awareness in schools and in the whole city, especially in rural areas.
Unthinkable future events
“Most schools are not really environment-friendly based on my data gathering, so I want to challenge the city government to take the lead in urging them to change their systems as soon as possible,” Catapang said.
“What could happen after 10 years is already unthinkable. Supertyphoons and El Niño, which occur in the Philippines, are already manifestations of the worst effects of climate change,” she said.
Emily Catapang, Mary Therese’s mother, said she left her youngest child at the city hall after writing her adviser for permission to participate in the climate strike.
“It’s sad that she went alone. Those who had committed to join her did not arrive,” Emily said.
She said she and her husband allowed Mary Therese to join the climate strike “in solidarity with hundreds of thousands of youths all over the world [who are demanding] urgent climate action” from their governments.
“We support our child’s environmental advocacy, and we are proud of her for taking a stand for our one and only planet,” she said.
UN climate summit
On Saturday, several hundred young activists, including Thunberg, gathered for a climate summit at the United Nations in New York, chiding older generations for doing too little to curb carbon emissions.
The United Nations had invited 500 young activists and entrepreneurs to take part in the meeting, the first of its kind, though some were unable to attend after being denied US visas, a point raised by the organizers.
It came days before a climate action summit that UN chief Antonio Guterres had called to seek greater commitments from world leaders on reducing their greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris accord to avert runaway global warming.
The tone for Saturday’s event was set by an impassioned speech by Argentine activist Bruno Rodriguez, 19, who led school strikes in his native country.
“The climate and ecological crisis is the political crisis of our time, it is the economic crisis of our time and it is the cultural crisis of our time,” he said, as Guterres, who was billed as the “keynote listener,” watched on.
“Many times, we hear that our generation is going to be the one in charge of dealing with the problems that current leaders have created, and we will not wait passively to become that future: The time is now for us to be leaders.”
Thunberg spoke first but briefly, saying she wanted to give more time to others.
“We showed we are united and young people are unstoppable,” said the 16-year-old, who will also address Monday’s summit.
The corridors of the United Nations were filled on Saturday with young people in formal suits and ties, dresses and traditional wear from their home countries, and others wearing simple T-shirts and jeans.
“This is the change, and it’s coming,” said Lalita Purbhoo-Junggee, a green entrepreneur from Mauritius, who turns billboards and textile waste into fashionable bags.
The day also saw young innovators proposing solutions, pitching their ideas to panels from leading global companies like Google.
But corporations also came under fire for their ties to the oil and gas industries.
During one testy exchange, Kathleen Ma, a 23-year-old delegate who lives in New York, turned to a representative from Microsoft, which this week announced a deal with Chevron and oil field services company Schlumberger to provide cloud computing services.
“Do you care more about getting contracts from fossil fuel companies than you care about youth? Do you care more about profits than you care about us?” she asked, to wide applause.
Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental officer, thanked her for the question, replying: “That’s one that the entire tech sector, and everybody in the world we live in today which is predicated upon an oil and gas economy has to answer. It’s one that you’ll be hearing more about both from Microsoft and our peers in the broader tech sector as this moves forward.”
Rodriguez, the activist from Argentina, later told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that young activists were strongly in favor of efforts to divest from the fossil fuel industry, which was responsible for “pillaging” across Latin America.
He added that he welcomed the fact that the corporate sector had a heavy presence on the sidelines of the main UN climate summit this week, but that their efforts need to go beyond rhetoric and “they also need to be conscious that the greenwashing speech has no place anymore.”
A landmark UN report to be unveiled next week will warn global warming and pollution are ravaging Earth’s oceans and icy regions in ways that could unleash misery on a global scale.
But Guterres struck a more optimistic note on Saturday, crediting young activists with spurring action.
“This changing momentum was due to your initiative and to the courage, with which you have started these movements,” he said. —With reports from Madonna T. Virola and AFP
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.