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Typhoon Haiyan Survivor: Fossil Fuel Companies Killed My Family by Hastening Climate Change

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As we broadcast from the U.N. climate summit in Katowice, Poland, world leaders and officials from nearly 200 countries are here to negotiate how to implement the 2015 Paris Agreement. But three years after Paris, they appear no closer to curbing global emissions and halting catastrophic climate change. New studies show global carbon emissions may have risen as much as 3.7 percent in 2018, marking the second annual increase in a row. As the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that humanity has only a dozen years to mitigate climate change or face global catastrophe, we speak with Joanna Sustento, who has already felt the harrowing effects of climate change and has dedicated her life to climate activism as a result. Her life was turned upside down in 2013, when Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest cyclones in recorded history, devastated the Philippines, killing five members of her family and thousands of others.

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StoryNov 18, 2013After Typhoon Haiyan’s Devastation, Filipino Calls for Climate Action Take On New Urgency
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the U.N. climate summit in Katowice, Poland, just an hour’s drive from Krakow and about the same distance from Auschwitz, the largest Nazi concentration camp of World War II. Nearly a million Jews died in the camp.

Here in Katowice, world leaders are gathered for the final few days of the 24th annual U.N. climate conference. Officials from nearly 200 countries are here to negotiate how to implement the 2015 Paris Agreement. But three years after Paris, countries appear no closer to curbing global emissions and halting catastrophic climate change. New studies show global carbon emissions may have risen as much 3.7 percent in 2018, marking the second annual increase in a row. One recent report likened rising emissions to a, quote, “speeding freight train.”

As the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that humanity has only a dozen years to mitigate climate change or face global catastrophe, we begin today’s show with a woman who’s already felt the harrowing effects of climate change, is dedicating her life to climate activism as a result. Joanna Sustento’s life was turned upside down in 2013, when Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest cyclones in recorded history, devastated her country, the Philippines, killing five members of her family and thousands of others. This is Joanna telling her story to Greenpeace Philippines.

JOANNA SUSTENTO: From the biggest of tragedies, hope can be found. My name is Joanna Sustento. I had a happy life, a good job, great friends and a wonderful loving family. But in a matter of minutes, all of that changed.

For those who experienced Haiyan, the strongest typhoon ever recorded, it was apocalyptic. I witnessed my mother, my father, brother, sister-in-law and my 3-year-old nephew being swept away by the storm surge. It left my brother and me to search for our family’s bodies in the aftermath. We never found our father and our nephew. It’s difficult to be the one left behind. We have to deal with all the questions, the grief, the pain and the regrets.

Typhoon Haiyan killed more than 10,000 people and left over 14 million people homeless. But it’s not just statistics and numbers in a news report. This is about us, the people.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Filipina climate activist Joanna Sustento. Since Typhoon Haiyan, she’s focused her fight against climate change on the world’s biggest polluters. They’re called the carbon majors, the 47 fossil fuel companies responsible for nearly a quarter of all greenhouse gases. She says they’re legally responsible for the death of her family members. She’s here in Katowice, Poland, for the U.N. climate summit.

Joanna Sustento, welcome to Democracy Now!

JOANNA SUSTENTO: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, I remember so vividly five years ago, when we were actually here, in the same country, Poland, in Warsaw, when Yeb Saño, who was heading the Philippines delegation—


AMY GOODMAN: —spoke to the world. We’re going to play that in a minute. But if you can talk about where you were on that day, and tell us what happened?

JOANNA SUSTENTO: So, five years ago, on November 8, 2013, I was actually at home with my family. So, there was seven of us living in that house. And as early as 5 a.m., we were already awake because of the strong wind and the rain. And it was the—I mean, in the Philippines, we experience an average of 20 typhoons per year, but it was the first time that we felt such intensity to the point that we can feel our house vibrate because of the pressure. And there was a distinct howling in the wind that was—we’ve never experienced that before. And that was also the time when we—it was the first time we experienced storm surge, for—the height was like 15 to 20 feet. We had no choice but to go out of our house.

AMY GOODMAN: And “we” were? You were with?

JOANNA SUSTENTO: I was with my parents, my eldest brother, my—two of my—two of my older brothers, my sister-in-law and my 3-year-old nephew. There was seven of us in that house.

So, basically, we didn’t have a choice but to just go out of the house, because if we stayed there, we would be trapped inside. And we got separated from each other while battling the strong winds, the rain and the storm surge. And in just two hours, everything was damaged. Everything was taken away from us.

AMY GOODMAN: Had water risen?

JOANNA SUSTENTO: Yes, it rose for about 15 to 20 feet.

AMY GOODMAN: Who were you with outside?

JOANNA SUSTENTO: My whole family. My whole family, we decided to go out of the house. And—

AMY GOODMAN: You were holding on to each other?

JOANNA SUSTENTO: We were holding on to our window grills. And then, the strategy was we would wait for the storm surge to rise up to the roof, so it would be easier for us to go up. But since there were plenty of debris floating—animals, like birds, frogs, snakes, rats, were floating with us in the surge, and it was hitting us, as well. We couldn’t also see what was really happening, because everything was so hazy, and it was as if crushed ice were being thrown at our face. So, at some point, all of us were separated from each other.

But I was together with my parents during their last minutes of their lives. I saw my father—while we were floating and we were holding on to a log, my father drowned. And then he surfaced. And then I saw him drown again. And then he surfaced. And then he drowned, and then I never saw him again. And that’s when I focused myself on my mom. There was a refrigerator floating in front of us, so I decided to grab on to the refrigerator so that we could stay afloat. So my mom held on to it, as well. But the waves were so strong. It was crashing onto the refrigerator. And I was being pushed under the steel trusses of a building nearby our house. So, the water was—the steel trusses of the building was up here on my head.

AMY GOODMAN: Above your head.

JOANNA SUSTENTO: And the water was up here. So I—

AMY GOODMAN: And the water was to your nose.

JOANNA SUSTENTO: Yes. I was being trapped. So I decided to just push the refrigerator away from the building and hold on to it. And I looked for other things to keep me afloat. But that’s when my mom and I got separated from each other. And I felt like I was being spun inside a washing machine. It was very hard for me to surface again, because there were plenty of debris blocking my head. I tried to surface, but I just couldn’t. And at some point, it was very exhausting for me to try to survive. But I felt that when I pushed my head, I felt air. So I just used both my hands to push all the things that were blocking my head. And I actually used—I think it was a door. I’m not sure. I used the thing that was blocking my head to float.

And then I saw my mom, and I drifted towards her. I held her arms, and I tried to lift half of her body so she could hold on to the wood I was using to stay afloat. But when my hands slipped from her arms to her fingers, her body splashed into the water. And there was just no sign of her struggling to survive, so I just hugged her, and I kept on calling her, but she didn’t respond anymore. And that’s when I realized that my mom was gone. I just held on to her and let the storm surge take us.

And then, at some point, it was very exhausting to be carrying her lifeless body and that I had to make a decision. If I am going to hold on to my mom, I would also die, because the current of the water was very strong. But if I let her go, I will live. But will I ever be able to live with that decision, that I wasn’t able to save what was left of my family?

AMY GOODMAN: But your mother was dead.

JOANNA SUSTENTO: So, I decided that I was able to survive that storm, and my parents would want me to continue and to choose to be alive despite all of that. So, I had no choice but to just let her go. And then I just climbed up the steel frames of a water tank, and I stayed there until the wind and—until the wind and the water receded. And then someone just helped me come down from the steel frames. And then I asked what time it was, and he said that it was about 9 a.m. And then I remembered that the water started to rise in our house, it was 7:00, so it was two hours.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, 10,000 people died in that two hours.

JOANNA SUSTENTO: More than 10,000 people died.

AMY GOODMAN: And your other family members, your brothers, your nephew?

JOANNA SUSTENTO: My older—my eldest brother, his wife and his son, they weren’t able to survive the storm, either. So, right now, it’s just me and my older brother.

AMY GOODMAN: At that time that you were struggling for your life, the U.N. summit was taking place right here in Poland. And Yeb Saño was beside himself. Yeb Saño, the Philippines top climate negotiator five years ago. This is Yeb addressing the 2013 U.N. climate conference in Warsaw just after the Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines.

NADEREVYEB” SAÑO: Typhoons such as Haiyan and its impacts represent a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to delay climate action. Warsaw must deliver on enhancing ambition and should muster the political will to address climate change and build that important bridge towards Peru and Paris. It might be said that it must be poetic justice that the Typhoon Haiyan was so big that its diameter spanned the distance between Warsaw and Paris.

Mr. President, in Doha we asked: “If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?” But here in Warsaw, we may very well ask these same forthright questions. What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness. Mr. President, we can stop this madness right here in Warsaw.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Yeb Saño speaking as the lead climate negotiator for the Philippines in 2013. Through that U.N. climate summit, he wept, he fasted. The next year, the U.N. climate summit was held in Lima, Peru. And just before he was headed to Peru, he learned he would no longer be on the delegation. Our guest is Joanna Sustento, climate activist from Tacloban. Also, Yeb did not know what had happened to his family members. And your family knew Yeb’s family.

JOANNA SUSTENTO: Yes. Yeb’s brother, A.G. Saño, is actually my brother’s friend. And A.G. was supposed to stay at our house the night before the typhoon struck, but he decided to stay in a hotel. And I couldn’t imagine if A.G. was in our house and he would also experience the same extent of the struggle to survive.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, we spoke with both A.G. and Yeb in the coming summits, as they described their own experience.


AMY GOODMAN: You have called Typhoon Haiyan a violation of human rights. Talk about that. Why?

JOANNA SUSTENTO: Typhoon Haiyan, and all the other storms that passed after Haiyan, as a result of climate change, is a violation of human rights, because whenever extreme weather events happen, especially in my country, the Philippines, we lose the basic human right to a safe environment. We lose the right to live. We lose our right to livelihood. We lose our right to education, because schools get damaged. And whenever there are typhoon warnings, our classes get suspended. And can you imagine like—can you imagine students having to go through that? We lose our human dignity, to have—to just have that mental health, because after the storm we did not have that space to grieve and to just feel what we want to feel. We lost everything, but we didn’t have that space, because we were so busy for survival. We were busy looking for food, for water, for our family members.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about how you went from this climate catastrophe, a climate survivor, losing five members of your family, to becoming a climate activist, coming to global gatherings like these and now taking on what’s called the carbon majors, the 47 fossil fuel companies that are responsible for some quarter of the fossil fuels emitted through history, fossil fuel emissions.

JOANNA SUSTENTO: Well, I can say that what we’ve experienced back home, Typhoon Haiyan, it became that turning point, because a year after the onslaught of Haiyan we were again anticipating another super typhoon. And I remember as I was packing my things, because we were preparing to evacuate to a safer place, I just felt so exhausted. And I just thought, “Is this it? Is this the life that I’m going to be living from now on? Are we just going to wait for another catastrophe to happen? Are we just going to count the casualties, the injured, the missing? Are we just going to wait for relief and aid from foreign countries every time we are met by these catastrophes?” And I cannot imagine living a life like that. It’s exhausting. It’s a great injustice, because we are not responsible for this. I do not want my future family, my future children, to go through what I’ve been through, because no one—no one deserves—no one deserves that.

And that’s when I realized that everything was taken away by that storm, but I was able to survive that for a reason. And I promised myself that I will never stop finding what that reason is. Sorry. And I realized that despite everything, our community, we have gained a powerful story to tell, because our experiences, our stories, it could put a human face on the numbers, on the statistics of climate change. And I believe that these global conferences, human stories—human stories—have that power to change the current system.

AMY GOODMAN: Right now, a human rights commission in the Philippines is trying to determine if corporate polluters should be held accountable for the loss of life linked to their business model. Can you describe this investigation that’s underway, and also a lawsuit against the carbon majors?

JOANNA SUSTENTO: Well, this petition was filed in the year 2015 by typhoon survivors, fisherfolk, farmers and other environmental organizations at the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines to—yes, to investigate 47 oil, coal and gas companies into their responsibility for human rights violations resulting from climate change. Now it is already the sixth public hearing in the Philippines, actually. So, we gather scientists, researchers, who have the facts, backed by climate science.

AMY GOODMAN: And what you say to people who say you can never prove any one hurricane is related to climate change?

JOANNA SUSTENTO: Yes, of course.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, the intensity, the frequency.

JOANNA SUSTENTO: Yes. It has been getting more extreme, getting more frequent. And with the help of our community witnesses in the Philippines—they are also put to the stand, and they have the chance to share how climate change impacted their lives, their livelihood, their—

AMY GOODMAN: Have companies tried to shut down the investigation, some of these fossil fuel companies?

JOANNA SUSTENTO: So far, none of them have showed up. So they are ignoring, blatantly ignoring, as what—as what they’ve been doing for the past decades, because they knew. They knew of the consequences of their business practices, but they didn’t do—well, they did something about it: They paid billions of dollars to individuals so that they deny climate science. And that’s just—they blatantly deceived the whole world.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you been participating in some of the protests here? And also, the issue that’s so interesting of protests that are taking place, yet those who protest in this conference center in Poland—this is part of a U.N. deal—a conference center that, by the way, is shaped like a coal mine and sits on an old coal mine—a whole coal mine area—protesters are not allowed to name names of corporations they’re protesting.

JOANNA SUSTENTO: I have been participating like in the climate march. And I’ve also seen plenty of activists who—with whom I share the same advocacy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you name some of the names of the companies, the 47 carbon majors?

JOANNA SUSTENTO: Shell, BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Suncor, Lukoil. That’s just some of the—well, there are actually 90 big companies all over the world, but 47 companies are present in the Philippines.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds left. What do you want to see come out of this conference? And talk about your life’s dedication at this point, your life’s mission.

JOANNA SUSTENTO: Honestly, at this point, I am not expecting anything from the COP. But having journeyed with fellow activists here, I see that there is so much power in the people out there. There is so much power for them to create that pressure to our governments, to our corporations to change the current system. And through their stories, through our stories, we can change that global mindset.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much for being with us. Again, our condolences for your family, for the Philippines and for so many other countries. We’re going to talk more about this all through this week as we broadcast from the U.N. climate summit. Joanna Sustento, climate activist from Tacloban, Philippines.


AMY GOODMAN: Typhoon Haiyan survivor, lost five members of her family and so many more in her community.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, chasing the story. Democracy Now! tries to question a top climate adviser to President Trump. Stay with us.

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