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Writing History’s Longest Suicide Note

Here we are.

The morning after.

When the plane finally touched asphalt I could call home.

Kamuning in the heart and also beneath my feet.

Content canine Emil is sleeping on my left, at peace with the slow day in the corner where he fought and defeated the ugly things that once attempted to impose their space in our house.

In front of us, the bougainvillea planted years ago in the street.

The plant is stretching out, with multiple trunks stemming from a single base, thorned stems shooting upwards, towards the sun, merging with the crown of the old chesa.

From above, the woody vine cascades with a different shade of green and shy bracts of magenta flowers, enjoying, on occasion, the company of the deep-yellow fruit of the evergreen tree spelled tiessa or called canistel elsewhere.

A breeze strums the air and momentarily parts the leaves, allowing connection briefly with the sky.

The chesa is a native of Central America. The thorny bougainvillea sprang originally from Brazil. Emil is of multiple breeds. And I am Filipino, a child of the world.

There is a simplicity here that commands the silence of the morning. An inhabitable awe, as Kingsolver once wrote, that absorbs the aches of troubled times.

I was not here when the great flood brought by typhoon Ketsana came to pass. When a month’s amount of rainfall fell in a matter of hours and transformed Manila into a lake – a land that became a body of water surrounded by water.

People from vulnerable countries such as the Philippines and Bangladesh will be hardest hit by climate change, with potentially irreversible impacts, unless climate action is taken with

dispatch. Photo by Red Constantino

I was with colleagues in Bangkok, monitoring, of all things, the appalling, plodding pace of the global climate negotiations.

From Thailand’s ancient capital we followed the hurricane’s path till it hit Vietnam even as we searched frantically for electronic signs of safety – a texted word, a missed call – anything about family and friends in the submerged Philippine metropolis. [1]

And we waited and waited.

Our faces remained stolid, because we knew the week ahead would be long and difficult. But for a time we did not breathe the same way.

In the privacy of quiet corners some wept, when news began to filter in about entire neighborhoods washed away, and also when the first glimmers arrived indicating that kin and colleagues were alive, though not entirely out of harm’s way.

Strange days we live in.

It’s not as if the Philippines is new to cyclone-induced disasters. What makes things different now is the rate at which consequences of human idiocy – large-scale mining, deforestation, the construction of dwellings along riverbanks, to name some – is fusing with climate folly with deadly frequency and force.

What makes things unsettling – especially to those who for years have tracked the impacts of warming temperatures – is the promise that in the absence of leadership extreme weather events, including extreme precipitation, will soon become the norm.

Yet you would not be wrong in thinking negotiating members of the UN in Bangkok were discussing instead the alignment of Mars with Saturn and its effect on paint peeling from its halls.

“We talked about whether we are trying to build townhouses or a tower and about two elephants and how one would react if her elephant died,” said one government delegate to another in the corridors of the UN’s Ratchadamnoen office. [2] “We also discussed mixing all the ingredients together so they are cooked before Copenhagen,” where the penultimate international concurrence – or collapse – is expected.

An indignant Filipina in Thailand representing a sector already reeling from climate inaction – rural women – was scientifically more precise than Stephen Hawking in her response.

“The only thing more insane than the weather,” said Elvie Baladad, “are the officials negotiating our future inside the UN building.”

And of course she’s right.

Perhaps it really is as a delegate was said to have remarked in Bangkok. That in the long, directionless quibble on negotiating text and commitments, the UN-assembled parley on global warming may be writing the longest suicide note in recorded history.

The target to remain within safe boundaries prescribed by science is well-known – an agreed world treaty strong enough to bring carbon dioxide levels down to 350 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere. [3]

Scientists have told us that we are already above the safe zone – at 390ppm – “and that unless we are able to rapidly return to 350 ppm this century, we risk reaching tipping points and irreversible impacts such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and major methane releases from increased permafrost melt.” [4]

The elements that such an agreement needs is no secret – an aggregate reduction in emissions at least 40 percent among industrialized countries by the year 2020, along with the transfer of resources registering no less than $100 billion a year to finance the rapidly growing adaptation needs of peoples most vulnerable to climatic impacts. Not as loans but as reparations, because the impoverished did not create this crisis.

But no.

The likes of the US, Canada, and Japan – their officials would rather puff up their chests and talk of urgent climate action (but only if China and India act likewise).

Never mind if the yearly consumption of citizens from those two most populous countries are less by several magnitudes compared to what an average American or Japanese consumes.

And the profligate elites of developing countries – including the ugly thugs and morons ruling the Philippines today – they echo the false chivalry, bravely demanding emissions reductions from rich nations based on the doctrine of “common but differentiated responsibilities.”

But they will not apply the same at home.

Where now are all the great powers?

Where now, all ye of self-proclaimed towering nobilities?

Wisdom is a failed crop, and valor is now more scarce than green rice fields during El Niño.


Red Constantino is the author of The Poverty of Memory: Essays on History and Empire (CFNS, 2006). He is based in Quezon City and can be reached through his blog site http://redconstantino.blogspot.com

NOTES:

[1] “Army deploys troops as Ketsana closes in,” Bangkok Post, 30 September 2009.

[2] Earth Negotiations Bulletin, AWGs #4, Vol. 12, No. 431, 01 October 2009.

[3] See http://350.org

[4] Ibid..

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