Does it take mob rule to avoid the effects of climate change?

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MIKE-WOOTTONBeing a person with an interest in the Philippines energy sector and in particular in Palawan, I attended a climate change event put up by the Palawan Chamber of Commerce on Saturday. There was quite some passion in the room, particularly in relation to the electricity cooperatives’ having contracted in a 15 megawatt coal-fired power plant—not really a very sensitive addition to Palawan’s pristine ecological environment, you might think. Even less so when small hydro has been proven to be available since about three or four years ago at 60 percent the cost of coal, or less than half the cost of the diesel power which is used there exclusively.

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But if the consumers of electricity in the Philippines are willing to pay an additional P300-400 million per year for the “privilege” of blackening Palawan with the use of fossil fuel, then presumably it is not a cause for concern! I should be absolutely clear that I am not happy to pay my share of the P300-400 million extra cost, but perhaps I don’t see things in quite the same way as everybody else. It also seems rather odd that a rural electricity cooperative has the ability to commit all the electricity consumers of the Philippines to several hundred million pesos of additional costs. This is just about as crackpot as awarding toll road concessions to the highest bidder — in other words, the one who is then going to charge users the highest tolls in order to afford the bid payments to government!!

That climate change poses real risks to the Philippines was well explained at the event, but I think most informed people would accept that anyway. What was most interesting was that the way proposed to address this risk to the Philippines was by way of mass action. I didn’t get chance to put a question to the panel but I wanted to ask why it should be proposed that mass action be the way to address the threats; demonstrations, advocacy, putting up tarpaulins all over the place and probably even burning effigies in the street.

There is, in fact, already a law insofar as power generation is concerned, which effects the government’s policy to maximize the use of environmentally clean renewable energy resources – the Renewable Energy Act of 2008. Whilst this law in itself is not the total answer to the climate change threat, it is a significant contributor; there are also clean air laws and many environmental protection regulations.

The Philippines is a democracy in which people vote to select individuals to represent their interest in government. Laws already exist to address climate change, but even so the issue has to be addressed through mass action? And electricity consumers are willing to pay a premium of hundreds of millions of pesos a year in order to sustain the use of fossil fuel over alternative energy which is environmentally sound and reflects government policy to utilize natural indigenous energy resources. I have to say it’s all a bit confusing.

Part of the answer to this strange conundrum is the way in which Philippine big business operates. If it wants to do something for its own self-interest then it will. In general it has no sense of national or public responsibility and it will use crude muscle to force its desires to happen regardless, steamrollering its way through any opposition. In the end, everybody has to pay to satisfy these selfish aims.

Another part of the answer must be that thanks to the excruciatingly muddled regulatory environment and their even more excruciating administration, nobody really knows which particular regulation has priority over any other, and with the current laissez faire style of government, nobody is really going to take a stand in front of the big business steamrollers. If you dare to take a stand against the steamrollers, there is a good chance you would end up squashed flat—so better not, and anyway, you can always pluck some obscure regulation or other from somewhere in order to help avoid the scary steamroller.

The proposal for mass action in order to contribute to saving the Philippines from vanishing under the ocean as a result of climate change is surely a statement of failure by government to enforce its own policies and rules. Can we really expect people who are prepared to pay P300-400 million a year without a whimper to subsidize government not enforcing its own policy to even bother to make the effigies to be burnt in the streets in order to make the government act to avoid disaster? (They do make rather good effigies around here though!) Alas, the expectation seems to contain more than a dose of wishful thinking, and if it really is a real possibility then we are heading fast toward mob rule or ochlocracy.

Perhaps, just perhaps, climate change which, after all, has the attention of the whole world can act as a wake-up call to government to do the job, which it is apparently so highly paid and privileged to do. If that fails, then everybody can just keep forking out their share of Palawan’s P300-400 million per year unnecessary subsidy (together with paying high-toll road fees and all sorts of other unnecessary subsidies) whilst they slowly sink under the Pacific Ocean, glug, glug . . . .

Mike can be contacted at mawootton@gmail.com.

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