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In a speech he delivered via a video message at the United Nations (UN) on September 23, 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte called on world leaders to strengthen their commitment to the Paris Agreement to fight the continuing crisis caused by climate change with the same urgency as their approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.

     He noted that the ravages of this problem have “worsened existing inequalities and vulnerabilities within and between nations.” While it is a more than welcome call, his message was criticized by environmental groups in the Philippines as hypocritical. 

     As one group noted, Duterte needed to “walk the talk.”


     The knock on the Duterte Administration is the seeming lack of consistency between its supposed support for global norms promoting the protection of the environment, and the absence of action that follows it.

     President Duterte signed the Paris Agreement on Climate Change on March 1, 2017. Prior to this, however, President Duterte had been very vocal about his misgivings regarding participating in such a global project. He pointed out that unless the larger, more advanced countries signed on to it and took their commitments under the Agreement seriously, it would only lead to smaller, less developed countries being disadvantaged in the long run.

     ACTION FOR CLIMATE CHANGE The Paris Agreement is a component part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It deals with measures on the mitigation and adaptation of greenhouse gas emissions, and the commitments to finance such measures. The 196 members of the UNFCCC had signed the Paris Agreement in February 2020.

     The principal objective of the Agreement is to keep the increase in the global average temperature to below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Signatories to the Paris Agreement have committed themselves to undertake measures to try to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius as this would significantly reduce the risks and impact of climate change. 


     There is, however, little time to waste. Measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have to be adopted as soon as possible, as well as to increase the ability of signatories to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change. Recognizing the obvious climate changes taking place as indicated by the increasing frequency of extreme weather events experienced by the Philippines, the country’s delegation had been very active in working to have the 1.5 degree climate goal adopted.

     The warning issued by President Duterte is definitely not without basis. In 2017, US President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement.

     This was in keeping with his populist politics that caters to a base that is strongly inclined to disbelieve anthropogenic climate change, or human-activity influenced climate change.

     Under the terms of the Agreement, the earliest effective date when the US can withdraw from it is November 2020, a few months before the end of President Trump’s first term.

     Whether or not he gets a second term, however, the Trump Administration has already taken steps that have instituted and put into place changes in the policies of the United States that are contrary to the Paris Agreement. The grudging way that President Duterte had seemingly acceded to the recommendations of his Cabinet and close advisers seemed to point to how much priority this issue would be given.

     It also illustrates how much climate change politics in the Philippines, and even more broadly the politics of the environment in the Philippines, is largely dependent on how much attention is given to it by the President. Not even his Administration, but by the President. It fully reflects how much politics in the country is a matter of the personalities involved, with the President being the biggest personality of them all.

     In countries where climate change and environmental issues have gained traction, there is a strong institutional base that made sure that these issues were mainstreamed and kept in the mainstream of local and national politics.


     The Green Movement in Europe had given way to the emergence of the Green Party across the different countries of Europe. An inchoate social movement (which could trace its origins to the anti-nuclear weapons movement of the ’80s) had become more institutionalized, and now had an organizational base from which to keep environmental issues part of the public political discourse.


     And climate change had given them a common platform that cut across regional and national divides, as well as the variety of issues that had their roots in the environment.


     The importance of a political party that contested political power on the basis of a “Save the Environment” message ensured that local and national politics could not ignore these issues, and that the party cannot be underestimated. In the Philippines, there is a vocal environmental movement with even internationally recognized champions. Sen. Loren Legarda, for instance, is a UN Global Champion for Resilience. The groups associated with this movement have been the ones who have called out President Duterte on his lack of action on the country’s commitments under the Paris Agreement.

     One area where the Administration has been criticized is the false sense of achievement it has promoted about its policies on the environment.

     Duterte’s 2020 State of the Nation Address (SONA), the principal mention about the environment revolved around the Boracay clean-up that was conducted in 2018, and the slow opening up to tourism it entailed.

     While arguably necessary for the health of the island, its economy, and its people, this hardly counts as a credible poster-project of the Administration’s touted prioritization of the environment. On the other hand, the Administration was censured for its lack of action on the implementation of the Clean Air Act and other laws that promote the use of renewable energy.

     In particular, the Administration’s continued emphasis on the use of coal-fired power plants was emphasized by Duterte’s critics from the environmental movement. Instead of taking steps to at least reduce dependence on coal-fired power plants and institute changes that would promote the use of renewable energy, the building of more of these coal-fired power plants is in the pipeline.

     There were expectations of announcements of divestment from coal in the SONA, which unfortunately did not happen. NATIONAL PRIORITIES During the pandemic, as rare as they were, there was an unforeseen positive impact of the lockdown in the reduction of carbon emissions due to the ban on travel.


     Metro Manila saw a clearing up of its skies and an improvement in its air quality. Very little was done, however, to take advantage of this situation and adopt policy that would build on this unlooked for benefit of the community quarantine.

     As the Metro opens up, so too does its carbon emission indicators go up. It could be argued that the COVID-19 pandemic has distracted the Administration from its political programs. The implication being that if not for the pandemic, the country would have seen the Duterte Administration implementing more measures to strengthen environmental protection.

     This is belied by other areas where the environment has taken second-place in choices made by the Duterte Administration.

     The reversal of policies on restricting mining in favor of using it as one of the platforms for economic recovery illustrates the continuing impediments to the advancement of policies that favor environmental protection.

     The zero-sum calculation presented in the dichotomy between economic interests and the protection of the environment will always favor those who argue in favor of populist (jobs) and commercial interests. Yet again, these choices show how important the country’s commitments to the Paris Agreement are to the Duterte Administration. Poor oversight in the implementation of these policies has also had more unintended consequences.

     In the aftermath of Typhoon Goni’s passage through Albay in November 2020, soil and rocks loosened by quarrying along the slopes of Mayon had become the material for the lahar mudslide that rendered a number of barangays along its path uninhabitable.

     Over the long term, mining and quarrying operations, which have been allowed to go on despite opposition from environmental groups, contributes to the country’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change.

     This has resulted in soil erosion, land and water contamination, flooding caused by deforestation, and reduction of biodiversity. Again the issue here is not the Duterte Administration alone. It is the lack of sustained involvement in the public discourse of environmental issues, particularly of climate change. Perhaps the lesson to be taken from the experience of Europe is the need for environmental groups in the Philippines to organize themselves into a political party willing to contest political office. There are political parties that have included the environment as one of their platforms.

     This becomes problematic, however, when faced with stark choices and wherein choices in favor of the environment come out second best. There are political parties such as the Makakalikasan Party, a political party not registered with the Commission on Elections, but which has for its platform a 15-point Green Agenda. It might be time for environment advocates to dive into the murky depths of Philippine politics to ensure that their agenda gets mainstreamed and becomes part of the public’s discourse on the common good.


     Again the issue here is not the Duterte Administration alone. It is the lack of sustained involvement in the public discourse of environmental issues, particularly of climate change. Herman Joseph S. Kraft is a Professor of Political Science and currently the Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of the Philippines in Diliman.

Again the issue here is not the Duterte Administration alone. It is the lack of sustained involvement in the public discourse of environmental issues, particularly of climate change.

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