By Bradley Cardozo

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 and homes, and seeping into people’s clothing, skin, and lungs. 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 power plants in West Virginia, South Carolina, 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 mining, burning, and storage 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 here. 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 experienced here in the Philippines. Even the geographies of inequality in environmental degradation that I’ve seen in the United States are being replicated in the Philippines. Just as poor communities, people of color, and indigenous nations in the United States have been disproportionately burdened with the health hazards 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 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 in the ground, that we promote reforestation and regeneration of natural landscapes, that we turn to sustainable forms of agriculture that do not release tons of methane into the atmosphere like industrial factory farming does, 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 Western Europe, the United States, 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, particularly through their current campaign, “COAL IS NOT THE ANSWER!,” which has been gaining momentum across 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 in Batangas, Bataan, and Semirara.

Filipino environmental justice activists have been fighting back. Tondo residents recently created an organization called PAMA-3KA (Pagkakaisa ng Mamamayan para sa Paninirahan, 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.

At the same time, the concept of “justice” at the heart of the movement for climate justice remains fundamental. As indigenous women reminded us at a recent forum at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, we also need to think deeply about the social, ethical, and spiritual implications of renewable energy projects. Who will benefit from the electricity produced from solar farms, geothermal plants, and wind turbines? Will indigenous and rural poor communities, currently suffering the most from dirty energy and large-scale mining, benefit from clean energy technologies, or face new forms of disenfranchisement? The shift to 100% clean and renewable energy must be fundamentally based on justice, equity, and a fundamental respect for the ways of life and right to self-determination of indigenous and rural communities.

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.

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

Bradley Cardozo is currently an intern with the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice (PMCJ) and a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). His research is on the climate justice movement and ecological sustainability initiatives in the Philippines. He was born and raised in San Jose, California, and his parents are from Camarines Norte.