Today, the 14th of March 2016 promises to be a good day for climate change and for the Philippines. This afternoon, the Senate is expected to perform its solemn constitutional duty to concur in the ratification of the Paris Agreement, the historic accord on climate change agreed upon and adopted by the global community of nations last Dec. 11, 2015.
Last March 8, a day when the whole world celebrates International Women’s Day, a woman in the Philippine Senate showed the country why we must honor this gender. Senator Loren Legarda expertly steered in the upper chamber of our legislature the approval on second reading of the Senate resolution concurring with President Duterte’s ratification of the agreement.
That day, I was able to personally witness how Legarda, with the sterling support of her fellow women senators Risa Hontiveros, Cynthia Villar, Grace Poe, and Nancy Binay, was able to convince other colleagues who raised concerns about the agreement. She was persuasive, passionate, and insistent that the Senate approve the concurrence resolution by Wednesday so that it can be finally passed on third reading by today, with the senators expected to vote unanimously for the resolution.
Senator Loren asked me to stay in the Senate until the resolution was approved in case she needed my technical expertise to answer questions that her colleagues might ask. It turned out that I was not needed but I am glad I stayed to witness how Legarda had mastered the art of passing legislative measures.
If the Senate waited until next week to address some of the concerns raised, approval would have to be in May because of the forthcoming Lenten recess of Congress. As pointed out below, that would have been terrible for our reputation. Besides, a month is a long time in politics and the enemies of the Paris Agreement will be able to galvanize efforts to stop the momentum, including working to change the mind of the President.
After Monday’s concurrence, a requirement of the 1987 Constitution, the Department of Foreign Affairs will be depositing the instrument of ratification at the United Nations headquarters in New York, making us the 135th party of what is now looking like a universal agreement, with the exception possibly of the United States which, under Donald Trump, might decide to withdraw from the accord. Nevertheless, in our region of the Asia-Pacific, almost all countries have ratified the Agreement and we would have been a laughing stock, as a climate vulnerable country that turned its back on the only hope right now for ambitious global cooperation on climate change, if we continued to stay out of the Agreement.
That we did not end up shooting ourselves in the foot on climate change is to the credit of Senator Legarda. She led a huge effort by many individuals and organizations in and out of government to get the President to change his mind about the Paris Agreement. President Duterte surprised many of us when he criticized the agreement even before his inauguration. He raised concerns about our commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a barrier to our industrialization. He was skeptical whether the agreement was consistent with climate justice, a key tenet of which requires developed countries to take the lead on addressing climate change and to help developing countries respond to the challenges it pose through mitigation and adaptation programs. These were valid concerns but the critical language of the President seemed to doom its ratification by the Philippines.
I do not exaggerate when I say Senator Legarda was the leading force that resulted finally on the vote last Wednesday and this Monday. This was a collective effort with Legarda encouraging, pushing, and guiding all of us. In the end, a unanimous cabinet was able to convince the President that ratification was the right option.
For many years now, following the pioneering advocacy of Senator Heherson Alvarez, Senator Legarda has been our legislative champion on climate change and other environmental issues. Among others, she authored the Climate Change Act of 2009 and the People’s Survival Fund, the two principal climate change laws of the country. As Chair of the Special Committee on Climate Change and as the current Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Legarda has not disappointed in pushing the climate change and environment agenda.
Globally, Legarda’s leadership and advocacy of the issue has also been much appreciated. Among others, she was one of the original voices that inspired the creation of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, which the Philippines the 2015 Paris conference. The CVF had an enormous influence in the successful effort to have countries adopt, in the Paris Agreement, an aspirational goal of 1.5 degrees as the maximum increase of temperature after the pre-industrial period. Today, the senator is relentless about this ambitious goal and has made it clear to the Philippine delegation that we must continue to work for this to become the legal goal of the Paris Agreement. This is possible because the accord has built-in provisions for improvement and raising ambition, with a first examination of the options in the early 2020s.
Senator Legarda is of course not just an extraordinary woman because of climate change. She is also the strongest advocate in the Senate of other environmental issues, having authored many of our landmark laws on ecology. She is also prominent in supporting indigenous peoples’ and Moro peoples’ rights, has wide expertise in foreign affairs and security issues, and is a leader, in fact currently the highest-ranking political patron of the arts and the promotion of indigenous culture. Her passion and support for our traditional weavers and musicians is legendary. This is exemplified by the photo exhibit her office has led in setting up in the lobby of the Senate building of the Manlilikha ng Bayan (National Living Treasures) in the Senate. She has supported film makers as well, including the works of Brillante Mendoza such as Taklub and Buhos which are both about climate change. The events her office organizes is usually the paragon of promoting the best of Philippine culture, whether it is the food, the décor, or the entertainment. Finally, Legarda’s work on getting us to the biennale exhibitions in Europe has been phenomenal.
On a personal note, I have worked with Senator Loren since 1996 when I became an environment undersecretary and when she was beginning her political career, transitioning from being a broadcast practitioner to the role of a public servant. I have seen her mature as a politician these last 20 years. As a long-time colleague and as one of her advisers now, I have been able to observe that process of growth. For sure, she has learned how to use power well and for the good; for example, she has been a good shepherd of the national budget in the Senate. But the Loren I met in 1996 is still the Loren I know, a dreamer and a doer. And with this wonderful development on the Paris Agreement, all I can say is how lucky we are, how fortunate for our country and the world, to have Loren Legarda,—Senator, environmental advocate, climate leader, and most definitely a magnificent woman.
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