Attention, Filipinos: Climate Change Is Here. Now.

As we enter a new era of political uncertainty and volatility – both in the U.S. and the Philippines – many issues command our attention: the widening gulf between rich and poor; the rising death toll in a violent anti-drug war; the threatened curtailment of even modest gains in immigrant rights or healthcare access.

The list goes on.

But one issue is unlike any other, one that has the reach and power to influence all others and, as a consequence, impact our daily lives in profound and lasting ways.

And that is climate change.

As Filipinos and Filipino Americans, there are especially good reasons why we should pay attention to this crisis and why we should be deeply involved in the solutions.

But first, a brief reminder of where we stand today.

When you hear about climate change, you probably hear people talk about it as some distant problem looming on the horizon. It’s often framed as something that could happen, that may happen in the next 20 years, or 50 years, or even 100 years. But the first thing to understand is that we have already entered the era when climate change is altering our physical world in complex – and probably irreversible – ways.

Just a few quick examples among many:

Global temperatures in 2016 hit record highs, according to the World Meteorological Organization, capping a 5-year-run of the hottest period on record.

Typhoons in the Philippines are growing more intense and frequent, according to the World Bank, posing increasing risk as they make landfall outside the traditional storm season.  

Leah Tejada, a home caregiver in Los Angeles, is part of the Filipino diaspora in California that maintains strong connections back home. Her family in Leyte were forced to temporarily relocate after the devastating Typhoon Haiyan hit the Visayas in 2013. Like other Filipino-Americans, she sent back money and other support to help those most affected recover from the storm.

Leah Tejada, a home caregiver in Los Angeles, is part of the Filipino diaspora in California that maintains strong connections back home. Her family in Leyte were forced to temporarily relocate after the devastating Typhoon Haiyan hit the Visayas in 2013. Like other Filipino-Americans, she sent back money and other support to help those most affected recover from the storm.

Our oceans, which cover two-thirds of the planet, are absorbing more carbon and growing more acidic, threatening vast swaths of coral reefs and the coastal communities that depend on them. (This last fact is especially troubling for a country like the Philippines where 70 percent of the municipalities reside along the coasts.)

So we already see and feel the changes, in the sweat on our brow, the crops in our fields and the shoreline by our homes. Science is now filling in more of the picture of a rapidly changing world and demonstrating, with more evidence than ever before, that those changes are driven primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, which release heat-trapping gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane.

Why does all this matter to Filipinos?

In the Philippines, the case is pretty clear. We are a nation made up of myriad islands. Many of us depend on the ocean, or on farming or fishing, or the forests, for our livelihoods. Those who moved – or were driven – to the cities, are especially vulnerable to flooding or unstable food prices. And all of us, no matter where we live, can’t escape the ferocious typhoons. (My own family is from Batanes, a place long accustomed to strong storms. But when Typhoon Ferdie hit last October, my cousin, who has lived in the province for five decades, called it the worst he’d seen in his lifetime. Today, three months later, homes are still recovering from the damage.)

The small village of Savidug in Batanes is one of thousands of coastal communities throughout the Philippines that could be affected by rising sea-level and more frequent typhoons from climate change. (Photo by Mitzi Imperial)

The small village of Savidug in Batanes is one of thousands of coastal communities throughout the Philippines that could be affected by rising sea-level and more frequent typhoons from climate change. (Photo by Mitzi Imperial)

Remember when the typhoon season used to hit during certain months? That time is all but over. According to PAGASA (Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration), increasingly powerful typhoons are likely to be the norm while droughts during the dry spell could get worse. Making matters worse, our best natural defense against such storms – dense, old-growth forests or coastal mangroves – are diminishing or threatened.

A trader takes a break from a day-long journey bringing sacks of rice from Mindoro to Palawan by boat. Many local economies in the Philippines, such as food production and trading, could be disrupted by climate change, as more extreme droughts or rainfall hit the islands. (Photo by Dorian Merina)

A trader takes a break from a day-long journey bringing sacks of rice from Mindoro to Palawan by boat. Many local economies in the Philippines, such as food production and trading, could be disrupted by climate change, as more extreme droughts or rainfall hit the islands. (Photo by Dorian Merina)

For those Filipinos who are comforted because they live abroad, think again. To be sure, many of us abroad – more than 10 percent of Filipinoslive in places where the infrastructure is more advanced and the government response more rapid.

But take my own family as a small example. Until recently, I had a cousin in the tech sector living in Miami, just south of Donald Trump’s own luxurious Mar-a-Lago resort in West Palm Beach.  So how is Miami faring with climate change? It’s actually one of the most vulnerable cities in the U.S. With an average elevation of just six feet above sea level, it faces huge challenges in guarding against flooding and contamination of its drinking water.

So maybe my cousin should move to Washington, D.C. where our aunt has lived for many years. As the capital of the richest country on Earth, the U.S. surely couldn’t let that place go under water, right? Well, the Department of Defense has already started working on ways to protect nearby naval bases in Virginia from flooding, after citing a report that found that sea level rise could submerge 128 military bases nationwide in coming years.

A sign at the Hermosa Pier in Southern California warns of high tides and rough conditions. The pier, and others throughout the South Bay of Los Angeles, is popular among Filipinos for fishing. The area is projected to be hit by sea-level rise in the coming decades. (Photo by Dorian Merina).

A sign at the Hermosa Pier in Southern California warns of high tides and rough conditions. The pier, and others throughout the South Bay of Los Angeles, is popular among Filipinos for fishing. The area is projected to be hit by sea-level rise in the coming decades. (Photo by Dorian Merina).

And what about the West Coast, home to about half of all Filipinos in the U.S., a number fast approaching two million? Maybe, like my family, you had an uncle who came over in the 1930s to work the asparagus fields in California, the canneries in Washington and the sugar plantations in Hawaii. Filipinos came, worked hard and helped build the most productive food supply region in the nation. But now California is entering its sixth year of a historic drought – a long-lasting event that has the potential to reshape that region. And not just the agriculture, but also the housing tracts and urban sprawl that depend on imported water.

My point is simple: Though some places are getting hit worse than others, and some places have the ability to respond better than others, there’s no place we Filipinos can go and call home that is not going to feel the effects of climate change.

Or think about it this way. If you have a four-year-old son or daughter, or niece like I do, the effects that the world’s scientists tell us are coming have the potential to change her world – all before she blows out the candles at her twenty-first birthday. (And, more likely, at her quinceañera or debut.)

This is all tough to hear, I know. And there is enough tough news out there today. But it is critical to listen, if we are to find a way to live. And, my kababayans, though we are especially vulnerable to some of climate change’s damaging effects, we are also, each one of us, key to the solutions. It is our cooperative and communal spirit, our close relationship to the ocean or the forest or mountain, our knack for technology and innovation and our tight global families that will be needed in this new era and that shine as one reason for hope. 

Increasingly strong typhoons will likely be one effect of climate change, according to scientists. One solution may be in combining traditional technology with new innovations, like this roof on a home in Savidug, Batanes. The province’s houses are built to withstand strong winds and rain, which hit the islands with regularity. (Photo by Dorian Merina). 

Increasingly strong typhoons will likely be one effect of climate change, according to scientists. One solution may be in combining traditional technology with new innovations, like this roof on a home in Savidug, Batanes. The province’s houses are built to withstand strong winds and rain, which hit the islands with regularity. (Photo by Dorian Merina). 


Dorian Merina

Dorian Merina

Dorian Merina is a writer and journalist currently based in Los Angeles. This is the first of a multipart series exploring climate change and the Filipino diaspora. Future articles will address the history of carbon emissions, the future of the world’s oceans, food production and migration.