TWO CITIES. The shortcomings of the negotiators during the UNFCCC's 19th Conference of Parties in Warsaw became evident in Tacloban, as Yolanda struck. Illustration by Aki Lacanlalay.

Tacloban and Warsaw: A Tale of Two Cities

Strange as it may seem, there was an intimate connection between Tacloban, a city in the Visayas, and Warsaw, the capital of Poland, last November 2013.

All Filipinos know what happened on November 8. Yolanda, a Category Five typhoon (Storm Signal No. 4 in the Philippines) devastated Tacloban with strong winds and five meter waves generated by a storm surge. People were warned about it, but many did not anticipate its gravity. As a result, thousands died, hundreds of thousands were displaced, and millions were affected.

But not that many Filipinos—or citizens of other countries for that matter—know what happened in Warsaw in the two weeks following Yolanda. This was the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP 19) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an annual meeting where the countries of the world (over 195 parties of the UNFCCC) decide what actions to take to address the most serious environmental threat the world is facing: climate change.

Together with around 30 Filipinos in Warsaw, I acted as a negotiator for the Philippines. But while we were there, dressed in our suits, sweaters and winter overcoats, our minds and hearts remained with the people of Tacloban.

When Commissioner Yeb Saño, lead negotiator of the Philippines, spoke in the opening plenary of COP 19, he pleaded to thousands of officials, negotiators, and observers from over 190 countries to “stop the madness” of the climate crisis. In his speech, he announced that he would voluntarily fast until he saw a concrete and meaningful outcome from COP19. In his appeal, he said that “this process under the UNFCCC has been called many names. It has been called a farce. It has been called an annual carbon-intensive gathering of useless frequent flyers. It has been called many names. But it has also been called the Project to save the planet. It has been called ‘saving tomorrow today.’ We can fix this. We can stop this madness. Right now. Right here, in the middle of this football field.”

During the high level segment of COP 19 when ministers deliver their speeches, Secretary Lucille Sering, Vice-Chair of the Climate Change Commission and head of the Philippine delegation, also acknowledged the link between Typhoon Yolanda and Warsaw. Sering eloquently described not only the suffering caused by the typhoon, but also stories of resiliency.

“After Haiyan, we have seen how our little boys become men overnight. We see pictures of men playing basketball in the midst of debris. We are a people with a good of sense of humor, and we are using it to cope, knowing that there is nothing laughable about their ordeal. Our women, most especially, have shown strength in character, and selflessness. In all these, we are each other’s source of strength. That makes me proud to be a Filipino. Citing messages posted by my countrymen affected by Haiyan, ‘Roofless, Homeless but not Hopeless,’” she shared.

Did the Warsaw conference meet our expectations? Did Tacloban make any difference to Warsaw?

Unfortunately, no. While we—countries at the frontlines of climate change—did gain something, so much still needs to be done to really get a grip on this challenge.

COP19 saw the birth of the Warsaw international mechanism for loss and damage. This will provide technical and financial support to developing countries that have lost lives and properties due to extreme weather events such as typhoons and drought and slow-onset ones, such as sea level rise and ocean acidification. The mechanism, however, was established under the Cancun Adaptation Framework. Because of this, the support to be given by developed countries might be limited to measures for adaptation. We must work hard in the future to make this evolve into a compensation and liability mechanism.

In my article for Rogue Magazine, I wrote that there must be no retreat or surrender in combating climate change because—believe or not—it will get worse. “We can’t just fold our tents, build seawalls that will crumble anyway as storm surges become stronger and sea level rises higher, get into our boats to go nowhere because everywhere is flooded or every place will be a public health nightmare. So yes, frustrated, disappointed and angry as we are, we can’t walk away. We must learn the art of negotiation better, be smarter the next time, certainly be more imaginative.”

Indeed, it is an obligation for everyone to continue working to solve this problem. We cannot give up because we need to be able to teach the next generation how to do this better. Personally, as I am doing here in the Ateneo Law School, I am committed to teaching and mentoring the next generation of climate negotiators and climate justice workers. I am confident that they will do a better job than my generation.

Secretary Sering, in invoking Tacloban in her Warsaw speech, was absolutely correct. She said that “we can no longer afford any delay. This is not for us only. This is for our youth, the current generation and the future.” P


*Atty. Antonio La Viña is the Dean of the Ateneo School of Government and a renowned expert in environmental law and policy.

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