Adapting Life Amid Climate Change

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AMID THE devastating super hurricanes that have left a swathe of destruction in the affected areas several thousands of miles away from us — Harvey, Irma, Maria — it’s about time we get to revisit our own disaster plans and check-mark how prepared are we. Are we in fact adapting to a world whose climate swings are behaving rather harshly, punishingly if you will, as if in retribution for what we’ve been doing in the last centuries?

As this is being written, Typhoon Odette has just made a landfall in Cagayan in a cross-sectional path across the Cordillera and Ilocos regions enroute to southern China. A puny weather disturbance vis-à-vis the super hurricanes that swept the Caribbean and South America islands, Odette has not posed a direct threat to us here in the Cordillera highlands, except the usual mountain slides and flash-floods that can take place in menacing minutes. It’s no wonder that there’s more nonchalance than disturbance, and we see more people swamping up the malls than checking up residential ramparts.

For us in Baguio, the closest we can relate to severe weather aberrations are the 1990 killer quake and the subsequent huge typhoons that caused widespread damage not just on lives lost but on economic activities that ground to a halt from dislocated infrastructure systems. To this day, the decade of the nineties still presents a grim reminder of lessons learned and sadly, seemingly forgotten.

When the earth let out a mighty heave on July 16, 1990, doomsday scenarios immediately loomed life-size as 26 seconds of roller-coasting movement rocked many of us to our knees. Casualties by the thousands were record-high simply because buildings of recent vintage were erected on vulnerable mountain slopes and awakened fault-lines. To this belated day, we remember loved ones gone, but we forgot how better built structures can save more lives, how adaptive to today’s climes we could have been. To this belated day, construction works still go on frenziedly, characterized by the traditional shortcuts and without regard to geohazard risks.

In his recent newspaper column, noted urban planner and architect Felino A. Palafox Jr. has this to say when today’s buildings, amid climate change, must go through adaptation:  “What is certain is that climate change causes natural disasters to worsen, as pointedly shown to us by our Yolanda experience. That being now the new normal, as architects, we should foresee these kinds of disasters and construct buildings sturdier than before, stronger and more resilient.”

He further advises that building planners and designers must focus on sustainability if we have to strive in keeping the adverse effects of climate change. Green buildings will allow minimum energy consumption and reduced waste production. Newer technologies, he emphasized, have been paving the way for innovative building materials, lighting, ventilation, and other mechanisms which increase efficiency but are low in energy consumption. Summing it up, he’s telling his colleagues in the profession to “shape our buildings responsibly and in accordance with nature now.”

Somehow, in post-event analysis after the 1990 killer quake, that makes sense. In today’s climes — when events of greater force and ferocity are taking place with impunity, when super weather afflictions quickly develop in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans — that makes super sense. Too bad, we quickly forgot all about that, and by our inaction these recent years, continue to bask in archaic architectural and engineering practices that ignore climate change induced weather and geologic disturbances. Too bad that business as usual has been good for business, while being bad for the rest of us puny inhabitants of the only planetary home we have.

Clearly, in the aftermath of Harvey, Irma and Maria and during earlier times of Ondoy and Yolanda, life can never be as usual, sweeping aside the new normal that climate change has bred.  Natural disasters will always take place, intensifying each time they strike. Earthquakes will occur more frequently without warning and in greater ferocity. Typhoons will get stronger, lashing at wider areas than before.

True, nature has its own way to take its course, but we have the option not to allow inaction to breed from our own indifference. Leaders may come and go, but people is constant. There will always be victims among us. But we can opt not to be willing victims when natural disaster inflicts its deadly force on vulnerable communities. We can lend a voice to the global cry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that have caused, for centuries now, much of the global warming that our planet has absorbed from our own economic activities.

Are we doing enough to reduce our contributed carbon footprint through self-chosen activities that disengage us from our motor vehicles, even if a bit of a time each time? Are we pressuring our own leaders enough for them to be more serious in alternative energy use? Are they in fact setting iron-clad policies that veer away from coal-powered energy — the very culprit why too much carbon dioxide and other toxic gases are polluting the atmosphere, why our polar icecaps are melting, why our seas are getting warmer, why Harvey, Irma and Maria quickly develop into signature catastrophic events?

In brief, are we doing the right thing because it’s just the right thing to do?

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