Phillipines negotiator’s climate eloquence needed

On Dec. 4, the MODIS instrument aboard NASA’s Terra satellite took this visible image of Super Typhoon Hagupit approaching the Philippines.  (NASA Goddard’s MODIS Rapid Response Team) On Dec. 4, the MODIS instrument aboard NASA’s Terra satellite took this visible image of Super Typhoon Hagupit approaching the Philippines. (NASA Goddard’s MODIS Rapid Response Team)
Christina Romualdo Guest Columnist

Christina Romualdo
Guest Columnist

Right now, representatives are gathering for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. At the same time, a potential super storm, Typhoon Hagupit, is threatening to destroy the Philippines.

Sound familiar? In an odd episode of déjà-vu, the situation happening today has been reproduced almost identically for the past two Climate Change Conferences.

Two years ago, delegates descended on Doha, Qatar for the 2012 United Nations Climate Change Conference. This conference, known informally as COP18 or CMP8, was the 18th annual meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the eighth since the signing of the Kyoto Protocol.

On one of the last days of the conference, a small, unassuming man made some big waves with his loud voice. That man was Naderev “Yeb” Saño, one of the Philippines’ Climate Change Commissioners and the lead negotiator of the Filipino delegation.

Saño attracted attention for his tearful and impassioned plea to the assembly, begging for tangible action on climate change. He spoke on behalf of his home nation, the southern part of which had been devastated by the super Typhoon Bopha just days earlier.

At last year’s COP19 in Warsaw, Poland, Saño delivered another passionate challenge for change during his opening remarks. This time, he choked back tears as he spoke of his brother who was struggling to survive after super Typhoon Haiyan, the deadliest Philippine typhoon ever recorded, had decimated the country when it landed 13 months ago.

In the middle of his speech, Saño made an impromptu pledge to fast for the rest of the conference. Approximately 200 delegates made the same commitment to refuse nourishment and the movement, known as #fastfortheclimate, continued to grow post-meeting.

On Monday, the 196 member parties landed in Lima, Peru for COP20. Many were expecting Saño to make another emotional plea for change, especially since Typhoon Hagupit is expected to ravage the Philippine Islands this weekend.

Much to delegates’ surprise, they learned upon arrival that Yeb Saño was nowhere to be found.

Rumours arose that Saño had been dropped as the country’s lead negotiator. News outlets and civil society leaders wondered where the soft-spoken Filipino with the powerful message had gone.

When the news reached me on Monday afternoon, I began to wonder, too.

First, this round of negotiations is somewhat important – they are the last set of talks before COP21 in Paris, France, where the conference will aim to create a legally binding universal agreement on climate change. That’s kind of a big deal.

Second, Yeb Saño is something of a personal hero. As I’m an expatriated Filipina, he was the man who brought climate change closer to home for me. He was the one who reminded me that these typhoons were devastating my family, who usually reassured me that it was just a bit of rain and nothing to worry about. He was the one who made me care about doing something to change our predicament.

And now he’s been cast aside?

Bits of information explaining Saño’s exclusion have slowly made their way to the media. ABS-CBN, one of the Philippines’ major television networks, published an article saying that the office of President Benigno Aquino III was surprised that Saño’s absence was such a big issue.

The Presidential spokesperson is quoted as saying, “We shouldn’t be giving undue emphasis on one person because it’s government policy that should be the focus.” Contrast this to reports that the Philippines has separated from the Like-Minded Developing Countries group, led by China and India, and you begin to form an idea that maybe Saño’s exception from Lima is fueled by more economic-related pressures.

Saño has not kept silent about his exile. On the second day of the conference, he posted a series of Tweets culminating in a photo that says, “Silence speaks when words can’t.”

Whatever the reason for Yeb Saño missing out on Lima, we can’t afford to exclude such a vocal advocate from the all-important talks in Paris. Bring him back, President Aquino, for all of our sakes.