Bradley Cardozo, is currently doing his internship at the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice.

Bradley Cardozo, is currently doing his internship at the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice.

When I think of coal, the first thing that comes to mind is the dirty, foul puffs of smoke billowing out of the smoke stacks of coal power plants, drifting into the atmosphere and surrounding environments. I also think of soot and ash spreading around buildings, homes, and people’s clothing and skin. I think of images and videos that I’ve seen of coal miners emerging out of mines, covered in blackened coal residue. I think of media reports and personal stories about people living in the vicinity of coal mines and coal power plants in West Virginia and other Appalachian states considered part of America’s “coal country” region who’ve gotten sick with respiratory and other illnesses. I think of people coughing and sneezing and having difficulty breathing. I think of dirty, sooty, smoky, and hazy air. Basically, I think of the pollution of the air, the land, and human health caused by the burning of coal.

It’s strange and disconcerting for me to see coal-fired power plants, coal mines, and coal stockpiles here in the Philippines. It’s even more disturbing to know that this dirty source of energy, rather than being phased out like in several other countries, is being expanded in the Philippines. Coal currently accounts for a third of the Philippines’ energy mix and will soon account for over 70% if current trends continue in the coming years. All of the health hazards, pollution, and diseases and premature deaths that have been caused by coal in the United States are now being replicated here in the Philippines. Even the geographies of inequality in environmental degradation that I’ve seen in the United States are evident in the Philippines. Just as poor communities, people of color, and indigenous nations in the United Stateshave been disproportionately burdened with the health and environmental damage caused by toxic enterprises in the United States, poor and marginalized communities in the Philippines have been disproportionately hurt by dirty energy industries in the country. Rural poor and indigenous communities have suffered from the health impacts of coal plants and coal mines in the country from Semirara to Batangas to Bataan, while urban poor communities in Tondo have suffered from the pollution from the coal stockpile located in their neighborhood since 2014. Both in the United States and the Philippines, the rich and powerful typically don’t live in the vicinity of dirty coal and other toxic projects; the poor and minorities have suffered the most.

It doesn’t have to be this way. And in the current era of human-caused climate change, it can’t be this way anymore. Coal has been the single worst contributor, more than any other energy source, to the climate crisis in exacerbating the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Coal is the antithesis of the clean, renewable energy technologies (like wind turbines, solar panels, geothermal plants, micro-hydropower projects, and biofuels) that will bring us into the clean economy of the future. The climate crisis demands that we keep dirty sources of energy like coal and petroleum oil in the ground, that we promote reforestation and regeneration of natural landscapes, and that we solely use clean and renewable energy for our electricity and power needs.

There has been more and more talk of organic farming, sustainable cities, and clean energy, with coal seeming like a vestige from the past, during a time when Europe, America, and Japan were colonizing and polluting the world to become industrial powers. Why repeat the dirty development path of the industrialized global North when there are other, cleaner and safer, ways to obtain electricity? The Philippines is extremely rich in geothermal, solar, wind, micro-hydropower and other clean, safe, and renewable energy sources to the point that the country does not need a gram of energy from coal, petroleum, gas, or nuclear radiation to power its economy. Filipinos have an unprecedented opportunity to create a “green tiger” economy – to become a green superpower – by showing the world a different way to develop that does not rely on fossil fuels or nuclear power.

Ever since Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) struck Leyte and Samar in November 2013, the global climate crisis has been constantly on my mind. Yolanda struck the Philippines during my second year of graduate studies in anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). News, images, and videos of the super typhoon’s devastation circulated widely in social media, online news sources, TV coverage, and through word of mouth, and the UCLA campus community, spearheaded by Filipino American student groups and individuals, started fundraising to help with relief efforts for victims of the disaster. The issue of climate change loomed large in the reporting, with international climate scientists discussing the role of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming in triggering fiercer and more destructive tropical cyclones, along with more severe flooding and droughts, altered hurricane paths, melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels, sinking islands, and oceanic acidification. The Philippines has been identified as one of the most vulnerable nations on Earth to the effects of the climate crisis – an ironic situation, as noted by many Filipinos, since the Philippines has been responsible for less than 1% of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions causing global warming, unlike industrialized countries like the United States, the world’s historically worst polluter.

In August of 2016, I began an internship with the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice (PMCJ), a grassroots coalition with branches, contacts, and partner organizations throughout the Philippines. I’ve been learning about the extremely important work that PMCJ has been doing to achieve economic, environmental, and climate justice in the country. I’m grateful for everything that I’ve learned and the people that I’ve met that have been fighting against the combination of toxic pollution, environmental degradation, and social and economic inequality that has been hurting communities around the country. I learned about the increase in respiratory and other health problems as well as the sharp decline in fish resources in Verde Island Passage, the body of water separating Luzon from Mindoro and dubbed the “center of the center of the world’s marine biodiversity,” ever since coal power plants were established in Batangas province. More recently approved projects in Batangas City, including another coal-fired power plant and a large-scale gold mine that will use the extremely toxic substance of cyanide in its operations, further threaten to attack Verde Island’s and Batangas’ extraordinary biodiversity as well as the health of the people and environment. In Tondo, urban poor residents have experienced a sharp increase in skin and respiratory illnesses and premature deaths ever since coal ash and soot began drifting to their homes and neighborhoods from a coal stockpile that was established in their neighborhood in 2014. Similar stories of damaging health and environmental impacts have been experienced from coal plants, mines, and stockpiles inBatangas, Bataan, and Semirara.

Filipino environmental justice activists have been fighting back. Tondo residents recently created an organization called PAMA-3KA (PagkakaisangMamamayanparasaPaninirahan, Kalusugan, at Kabuhayan) to organize to shut down the Tondo stockpile. Thousands of Batangenos have rallied against dirty coal in their province, and Batangas City Councilwoman Kristine Balmes has been leading the uphill fight against coal power expansion at the level of local government politics. Sadly, one anti-coal activist, the beloved Gloria Capitan, was murdered in July earlier this year in Bataan. Despite the heavy setback for community members in Bataan, the fight for environmental and climate justice pushes on. I deeply admire the work and perseverance that Filipino climate justice activists and local citizens have been doing to promote clean, healthy, sustainable, and just communities and economies. They are at the forefront of the effort to pave a better, more sustainable path forward for the Philippines and the struggle to maintain a habitable climate and planet for all of us.