Nearly one year ago, in a corner of Doha, thousands convened for the 18th Convention of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. When one man stood to leave the room, youth delegates lined the aisle. They stood silently until he reached them, and then they began to clap.
Naderev M. Saño, the head of the Filipino delegation, bowed his head. When the clapping stopped, youth delegates from around the world stood in line to give him a hug, to lean in and say a few words. There were so many things I wanted to say, but when he reached me, I gave him a hug and said the only thing I could. “Thank you.”
The climate commissioner and head of delegation for the Philippines, Naderev “Yeb” Saño, has become a favorite with young climate activists from around the world, many of whom are now fasting with him in solidarity until a climate deal is reached.
He speaks quietly and deliberately, but when he speaks, the room falls silent. Last year I sat in the back of the room, preoccupied with tapping out blog posts and monitoring my Twitter feed. Like many youth delegates, I was exhausted and disillusioned, struggling to balance my faith in something better with the cynicism of this process. Yeb’s voice hit me with such force that my head snapped up. Leaning into his mic, he spoke carefully, his voice choked with emotion.
In December 2012, reports of a Category 5 typhoon sweeping through the Philippines circulated through the cavernous halls of the Qatar National Convention Center in Doha. Typhoon Bopha devastated the southern Philippines, the death toll exceeding 1,000. Yeb implored the international community to act, echoing the words of Ditto Sarmiento: “If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”
Almost exactly one year later, Typhoon Haiyan — the third Category 5 typhoon in three years — hit the Philippines as the 19th Convention of the Parties kicked off in Warsaw. As photos of the devastation continue to surface, I hear the words Yeb Saño spoke one year ago, urging the international community to come together — to work together — to address the threats of climate change.
And on Monday, in an emotional address, he dared climate deniers to open their eyes to the reality of climate impacts around the world:
To anyone who continues to deny the reality that is climate change, I dare you to get off your ivory tower and away from the comfort of you armchair. I dare you to go to the islands of the Pacific, the islands of the Caribbean and the islands of the Indian Ocean and see the impacts of rising sea levels; to the mountainous regions of the Himalayas and the Andes to see communities confronting glacial floods; to the Arctic where communities grapple with the fast dwindling polar ice caps; to the large deltas of the Mekong, the Ganges, the Amazon, and the Nile where lives and livelihoods are drowned; to the hills of Central America that confronts similar monstrous hurricanes; to the vast savannas of Africa where climate change has likewise become a matter of life and death as food and water becomes scarce. Not to forget the massive hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern seaboard of North America. And if that is not enough, you may want to pay a visit to the Philippines right now.
My own delegation, the US delegation, is unable to speak with any degree of urgency, their hands tied by the Congress they are tasked with representing. A Congress that says, “the science is unclear,” when 97% of the world’s scientists are in agreement. A Congress that says, “mitigation and adaptation are too expensive,” when the US has spent billions of dollars in recovery and restoration efforts following the hurricanes, flooding, heat waves, and wildfires growing with steady intensity in North America. With all due respect to the US delegation, the message they are tasked with communicating comes across as dispassionate and nonchalant, the tone of someone who has yet to face reality.
Yeb Saño’s words, his authenticity, resonate deeply. It was only two months ago that unprecedented flooding swept across the Front Range of Colorado, leaving thousands without homes. I’m still grappling with the words to convey how terrifying this experience was, and even this enormous disaster pales in comparison to the devastation I now see in the Philippines.
During his opening address, Yeb Saño, in an unscripted last-minute addition, committed to abstaining from food during the COP unless a climate deal is reached. He explained that his relatives, friends, and countrymen were struggling to cope with the recovery efforts and that his own brother had been without food. As a plea, as a show of solidarity with his countrymen, Saño announced he would not eat. Within days, international youth delegates at the COP in Poland and youth activists around the world joined him. They stand in the halls with signs that say, “It’s lunch time, but we are not eating.”
Yeb Saño’s message is unwavering and sincere. In a sea of diplomatic stalemates, he reflects the urgency of the youth activists. In his opening address, he expressed the refusal to be complacent or to accept that the increasing intensity of these disasters is to become the new norm for communities around the world.
But it’s not just the urgency he embodies, it’s also the hope. In his opening appeal, he said, “We can fix this. We can stop this madness. Right now, right here.” In spite of everything, in spite of the delays and the debates, the youth delegates continue to show up, continue to belabor the point. It’s not too late. We still believe in the power of collaboration to inspire meaningful change.
When I see the images from the Philippines, I close my laptop, go for a walk. In the creek by my house, there is still debris from the flood. Telephone poles, tires, a lawn chair, someone’s shoe. My heart burns to be in Warsaw, to stand in the aisle clapping as Yeb Saño walks into the room. To clasp his hand once more and say thank you.
Thank you. Thank you for standing up, for lending your voice, your passion, your commitment to change. I am not in Warsaw, I am not in the Philippines, and I have nothing to offer but my hope and my voice. The answer to Ditto Sarmiento’s question beats in my chest. It must be now, it must be us, it must be here.
I stand with the Philippines.