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Yeb Saño: COP27 Agreement Must Keep “Loss & Damage” Fund for Countries Vulnerable to Climate Change

Web ExclusiveNovember 18, 2022
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On the final official day of the U.N. climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, we get an assessment of negotiations on a “loss and damage” fund, and more, from Yeb Saño, Greenpeace Southeast Asia executive director and former Philippines chief climate negotiator. “Establishing this fund is an expression of human solidarity,” from countries in the Global North to those “who did not cause this problem but bear the brunt of its impact,” Saño says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As we broadcast from the U.N. climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, we’re joined now by Yeb Saño, executive director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia. He was previously the chief climate negotiator for the Philippines. That changed after he made an emotional plea in 2013 at the U.N. climate summit in Warsaw, Poland, shortly after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines.

YEB SAÑO: 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: So, that was 2013. The next year, as another deadly storm battered the Philippines, Yeb Saño was unexpectedly absent from the U.N. climate summit in Lima, Peru. He had been pulled from the delegation at the last minute. Since then, Yeb has returned to COP every year, but as an activist and a climate pilgrim — we’ll talk about that — now executive director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

We welcome you back to Democracy Now! You have just come from the Climate Action Network briefing on this year’s COP27, what has been accomplished, what hasn’t. Talk about your deep concerns this year.

YEB SAÑO: Yes. We came to Sharm el-Sheikh to demand action for the interests of those most impacted by the climate crisis. And we hope to bring justice and accountability into the heart of these talks by way of establishing a fund, a fund for loss and damage. And when we talk about loss and damage, it is because we live in an era where we have realized the limits to being able to adapt to climate change. What’s happening to the negotiations, there —

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean exactly by “loss and damage.”

YEB SAÑO: So, when we talk about climate change, there is a notion of being able to adapt, to adjust, so that you don’t get impacted so severely. But when you talk about not being able to do that, meaning you lose lives, you lose cultures, you lose noneconomic and economic losses and damage, that is inflicted on so many communities, we’re talking about an entirely different proposition here now. Communities can no longer adapt. They can no longer adjust, or they have no means to be able to access resources that will allow them to do so. And then they lose, basically losing homes, losing land, losing livelihoods, and even losing entire cultures. Some islands are even disappearing. And especially when we talk about slow-onset events, like sea level rise, there is no recourse for the most impacted. That’s why we now talk about loss and damage. And that was established as the third pillar under the Paris Agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve said that rich countries are rich for a reason, and that reason is injustice. Explain.

YEB SAÑO: Oh, absolutely. The kind of comfort and the kind of progress, you can say, that is now being enjoyed in the Global North is a product of, you know, decades, maybe centuries, of subjugation of the Global South, including, of course, slavery, including racial injustice, including plundering resources in the Global South. And so, that was a product of all of that. And now, of course, including the use of atmospheric space by way of burning fossil fuels. And then, the Global South countries, which have the least contribution to this problem, are those who are suffering the most. It’s really a simple story. It’s very unfair, and that is unjust.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you were already, as a negotiator in Warsaw, talking about loss and damage. Here you’re talking about putting money into that mechanism. And that’s what the whole debate is about. You had John Kerry, weeks ago, in an event with The New York Times, saying loss and damage means liability and compensation, and that’s a place we can’t go. He might have modified that over the last few weeks because of enormous pressure. But if you can talk about specifically the U.S.? It’s a country you have called out as the largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases. What role are they playing at the COP27?

YEB SAÑO: What we’re seeing at COP27, in particular on the outcome on establishing this fund, is that the U.S. is favoring the nonestablishment of it, that we just continue talking and spend more resources to organize more dialogues and organize more meetings so that we don’t get to establish a fund. That is very blatant in the face of real loss and damage affecting many people and communities.

And I still struggle to understand the U.S. position on this one. When we acknowledge, of course, the importance of responsibility, especially historical responsibility — that’s why we have climate change — we’re not even talking about compensation and liability here. Maybe there’s something they imagine that could be a result of this entire conversation that they’re really afraid of.

But, of course, at the heart of it is, in fact, being held liable and accountable for all of the harms inflicted on people as a result of climate change impacts. This is really basic human fairness, right? So, it’s — those countries in the Global North that have created much of this problem should be leading the way towards demonstrating the human solidarity. I think just establishing this fund is an expression of human solidarity for those who did not cause this problem but bear the brunt of its impacts.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can give advice to activists? You were the chief climate negotiator for the Philippines in 2012, then in 2013 in Warsaw. 2014, you were abruptly — well, just you don’t show up. I remember when we were in Lima, because of your powerful speeches the year before, we were looking forward to talking to you, but you just weren’t there. Explain why you were pulled from the delegation. 2015, you’re a major activist in Paris. You go on a hunger fast for climate justice. Talk about your transformation. And since you were a negotiator, a chief negotiator, what you think the different — what kind of impact organizers can have?

YEB SAÑO: Oh, when I left this job, I decided, I think the institutions we have built will never be enough for us to truly make a difference. And I decided to join the people’s movement to fight climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Why were you tossed in 2014?

YEB SAÑO: Well, in 2014, to be perfectly honest, I have never bothered to find out why. But I have — I suspect it is because of my vocal critique of the West.

AMY GOODMAN: The Philippines actually often taking a line that is critical of the West, even the government, but in the end, you say that they’re actually working together?

YEB SAÑO: I don’t have any information on that. But I think being pulled from the delegation for negotiators who are vocal against the responsibility of rich countries in this whole process, I think it happens to smaller countries, to countries that have less power. It happens. There are a lot of strings attached in these negotiations.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about — you’re talking about the pressures you’re under as a negotiator. But what filtered through to you which gives you a sense of how you can be most effective on the outside?

YEB SAÑO: Well, I’ve always — I’ve always cared about making people understand that this is not just a scientific issue. This is not just a technical issue. And it’s not just an environmental issue. At the heart of the climate crisis is deeply rooted — is a deeply rooted, broken system. And then the kind of economic world order that dominates all of us is something that we must change. And system change must be at the center of our struggle against climate change.

And I think that could only be done at the grassroots. I don’t think this battle will be won or lost in these plenary halls, nor in chambers of law. This will be won in the chambers of people’s hearts. And therefore, that will have to be done by organizing people. There is no magic wand. There is no silver bullet to this. Organizing means talking to people, organizing communities, and making people understand the root causes of the climate crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about the dangers that environmental activists face? In 2021, the nonprofit group Global Witness said it had recorded that for the eighth straight year, the Philippines, Asia’s deadliest country for land defenders. Last year, it recorded a total of 29 documented killings of people defending their homes, land, livelihoods and ecosystems in the Philippines alone.

YEB SAÑO: This is a very sad reality for Filipino activists, and in particular land defenders, most of them coming from Indigenous communities. We have seen the impunity. We have witnessed the impunity. I know friends who have given up their life just to be able to speak truth to power and to defend their land. And it’s shameful to live in a country such as my country, that — where environmental defenders are murdered, are not given the space that is necessary to truly be able to protect the environment and fight for social justice. It’s sad. It’s sad. And it’s something that the world needs to pay attention to. And many people around the world should stand with people of the Philippines in solidarity.

AMY GOODMAN: This week, the new president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, called Bongbong Marcos, is at APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Thailand, where he’s pushing other heads of state, he says, for climate change adaptation. In September, President Marcos called for climate action when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly. Let’s watch.

PRESIDENT FERDINAND MARCOS JR.: The effects of climate change are uneven and reflect an historical injustice. Those who are least responsible suffer the most. The Philippines, for example, is a net carbon sink. We absorb more carbon dioxide than we emit. And yet, we are the fourth most vulnerable country to the effects of climate change. This injustice must be corrected. And those who need to do more must act now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the new president, Ferdinand Marcos, Bongbong Marcos. If you can talk about your assessment of him on climate and also when it comes to threats against activists? We know how Duterte was so devastating when it came to violence against activists.

YEB SAÑO: So, Marcos Jr. has a legacy to carry with him, and that part of that legacy is the inability and the lack of willingness to acknowledge historical responsibility for human rights violations committed by his father. And for me, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anytime and anywhere, like what Martin Luther King Jr. said. And this failure to acknowledge that responsibility is blatant. And that would reflect on him in — as he is now in power as president. And I would think that until he acknowledges that, all of the violation — human rights violations in the past, it would be very difficult for us to trust that he can deliver justice in any form.

And talking about his climate change rhetoric, we need to see that in action. The Philippines continues to be powered mostly by coal power, and there is no indication that renewable energy, for example, will be a priority for this government. There is still a lot of coal-fired power plants being built. And we need to see rhetoric translated into action. Even if he’s championing climate justice in the world, we would be — it would be very hard for us to believe that, until we see real, real sincerity in the context of being able to espouse justice and fighting for human rights for the Filipino people.

AMY GOODMAN: Also, Maria Ressa’s Rappler just ran a story headlined the “Philippine delegation to COP27 faces leadership shake-up,” and reported the 29-member delegation of the Philippine team finds itself without its original head of delegation, as well as top officials of the Climate Change Commission. Do you know anything about what’s happening there?

YEB SAÑO: Honestly, no, I have not been following that particular issue. I do know that there are members of the Philippine delegation here I see doing the all-nighters. So I think some members of the delegation are doing their jobs really well.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, climate change is attributed to a lot of things, most significantly fossil fuel and greenhouse gas emissions. I understand you’re a vegan now. Is that true?

YEB SAÑO: I am a vegetarian.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re a vegetarian. How does that play into climate action? Why do you see that as a part of it?

YEB SAÑO: Oh, this is truly important, because when we — when we will live our values as activists, it’s really important for us to understand the big picture. And a part of that big picture is how the meat industry affects climate change in so profound ways. And that’s something that I care about, although that’s a very personal choice for me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk, finally, about your life as, what you called yourself, a climate pilgrim? Talk about what that meant, when you went from negotiator to activist, the many miles you spent walking to educate people about climate change.

YEB SAÑO: So, we’ve embarked on these special journeys, some of them in conjunction with the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, the climate summits, as we call it, in 2015, from Rome to Paris, and in 2018, from Italy to Poland, over six countries. These journeys pay homage to people and communities affected by the climate crisis. And part of the intention is to be able to have conversations in every town that we pass through and carrying the stories from the most vulnerable communities in — especially in my country.

And it’s been very rewarding for us to exchange stories and bring the climate justice journey into the lives of people, not just in Europe, where we walk through, but all over the world, where we have also inspired many pilgrimages in different parts of the globe. I truly believe that walking has a special part and walking long distances plays a special role in making people understand the gravity of the climate crisis, that embarking on these journeys give us that opportunity to engage so many people and create a community of people who think that this — that every step counts. And indeed, when we talk about solving the climate crisis, every step counts.

AMY GOODMAN: And last question. You’re the head of Greenpeace now, Southeast Asia. Can you talk very concretely, graphically, descriptively, about how climate change affects Southeast Asia, in general?

YEB SAÑO: Well, Southeast Asia is regarded as one of the most impacted regions on the Earth when we talk about the climate, adverse impacts of climate change. We see rising sea levels. We see massive droughts affecting so many communities. We see much, much more devastating storms, forest fires affecting even ancient forests in Southeast Asia — in particular, Indonesia — and then flooding, massive flooding, loss of lives, loss of cultures.

And it’s profoundly — it’s profoundly impacting people’s lives and livelihoods. And what we’ve seen in Southeast Asia is a deep impact on the way people pursue development. And all of these are compounded into much, much bigger problems, and people just suffer, suffer tremendously, from climate impacts. This is very glaring for the lives of so many people in a region of more than 600 million people.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s interesting you mention Indonesia, because Indonesia had to actually relocate its capital — right? — from Jakarta to — on the island of Java, to East Kalimantan in Borneo. G20 was just held in Bali this week.

YEB SAÑO: No, that is true. That is very telling, when an entire capital has to be relocated somewhere else. We’re not absolutely sure that that is because of climate impacts. Of course, there are other political reasons for doing that. But Jakarta itself is flooded perennially. And climate impacts are affecting Jakarta in severe ways, and many other megacities in Southeast Asia. So, it can truly be — it can truly be a bleak picture for so many people.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, China and the U.S. are the biggest polluters in the world, the largest greenhouse gas emitters. What do you have to say to them?

YEB SAÑO: So, the U.S. and China, obviously, the G2, as we call them, the most powerful countries in the world, with the biggest emissions, it’s really important that they show leadership on climate action. We cannot possibly succeed in creating a robust climate regime that can prevent catastrophic climate change, that can prevent us breaching the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit, that can truly bring us into an era of energy — of a just energy transition, without those two countries. So I tell the U.S. and China, please get your act together, because the world will need your leadership.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much, Yeb Saño, for being with us, executive director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, head of the Greenpeace delegation attending COP27. He was previously the chief climate negotiator for the Philippines. To see all our interviews with Yeb over the years, you can go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, as we broadcast from the U.N. climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh Egypt. Thanks so much for joining us.

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