Memorable Moments with Mayor Romualdez from the Philippines

-By Mukta Batra and Jess McDonald

Cities are the economic powerhouses driving climate action.

This was one of our main takeaways after meeting with Mayor Romualdez from Tacloban city in the Phillipines. It was early on Saturday morning when we got word that the Mayor would be available to meet with us to discuss the Philippines’ climate concerns and his views on multi-stakeholder climate action ahead of this December’s critical UN Paris Conference.

Mayor Romualdez visited Duke this week to attend the Nicholas Institute’s symposium “Leadership in a time of Rapid Change”, where he participated on a panel focused on the recently adopted United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 new SDGs set the international agenda for the next 15 years, focusing on tackling some of the world’s most pressing challenges. The goals aim to eliminate poverty, provide universal healthcare, promote education, and tackle climate change, among many others.

Tackling climate change is intrinsically linked to many of the other SDGs and we are very appreciative that Mayor Romualdez took the time to share his thoughts with us as the Mayor is a member of a unique subnational climate action coalition called the Compact of Mayors. The Compact was launched in 2014 at the New York Climate Summit in September and is a strong network of city leaders dedicated to sustainable development and mobilizing action on climate change. Tacloban city is one of 230 cities included in the coalition.


Unique National Circumstances

Located on the so-called “ring of fire,” the Philippines is particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events including earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. The City of Tacloban was devastated by the wrath of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 and Typhoon Koppu just recently passed over the island wreaking havoc along its path. It is likely that the world will experience more intense and frequent extreme weather events as rising temperatures from climate change drive warmer air over the oceans, which is one critical ingredient for the formation of hurricanes.

After Typhoon Haiyan ravaged his city, leaving 90 percent of the infrastructure partially or entirely destroyed, at least 2,000 people dead, and 25,000 residents displaced, Mayor Romualdez immediately began disaster response measures with the aim to rebuild his city into the bustling commercial hub that it was before the storm.

“It is the local government units that respond first, it is the local officials who supervise preparations for and response to these problems,” said the Mayor at a Conference in Paranaque City.

Touching on issues such as climate-resilience, adaptation, and loss and damage, the Mayor made it very clear that financing for disasters is reactionary, when instead it must be precautionary and rooted in disaster preparedness measures. Current action on disaster preparedness and response was compared to a car without an air bag, marginally cheaper in the short run but expensive and dangerous in the long run.

Firstly, many developing countries such as the Philippines need improved disaster preparedness through more efficient planning that includes comprehensive data collection and knowledge sharing between government, the private sector, and universities.  

For example, after the 2013 super storm the mayor mentioned that he was offered a substantial amount of financing to build a sea wall around his city to protect his people from rising sea levels. While potentially great in theory, the Mayor requested scientific and economic evidence that the wall would provide the claimed benefits before giving the project the green light. He strongly advocates for solutions that are grounded in facts and suited to local conditions, in order to use the monetary resources of his city as efficiently and effectively as possible.

This is attributable to not just disaster preparedness but to any mitigation or adaptation measures in the city as well. The Mayor urges that projects must be community-based, communication between stakeholders must be institutionalized, and education should come before collaboration. The city has bridged the knowledge-gap locally, through a community-based monitoring system coupled with data provided by the private sector. Mayor Romualdez aims to educate his people as to the importance of sustainability, resilient infrastructure, and climate measures in his role as “father of the city.”

Influence of Mayors

Local governments understand “conditions on the ground” and can quickly build and mobilize the social capital needed to instigate real positive change. Mayor Roumualdez also spoke to cities as the “economic powerhouses” of a state and called mayors the managers of a city.

This is why Mayors and other subnational actors will play an important role in the Paris negotiations, as it is the local governments that will inevitably be responsible for the implementation of a country’s national climate action pledge. Mayors have access to resources and can interact directly and transparently with all necessary stakeholders to enable action.

In the past year the role of the Compact of Mayors and subnational actors is becoming more prominent. The announcement of a Climate Summit for Local Leaders” in Paris on 4 December further accentuates the will of local governments to take the lead on climate action.

“Cities are acting now,” said the Mayor when we asked about climate action before 2020. The Paris Agreement is set to go into effect post-2020 leaving some experts concerned about a so-called “emissions gap.” Cities, the private sector, and other subnational actors are properly situated to fill this gap and help national government spur more ambitious climate action before the end of the decade.

We know that the Climate Summit for Local Leaders on 4 December will have an impact on the negotiations and we’ll just have to wait to see what these subnational actors declare on the road towards no more than a two-degree celsius world of warming. Paris is going to be a crucial moment for finding solutions to climate change and we agree wholeheartedly with a statement from the Mayor that the next generation must be viewed as a stakeholder in the climate negotiations.

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