Social Accountability Amidst Serious Environmental Challenges

By Congressman Jerry P. Treñas

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I am truly honored to speak before the distinguished guests of the Association of Schools of Public Administration in the Philippines’ (ASPAP) seminar on “good governance: social accountability and environment.” I wish to express my appreciation for the efforts of the ASPAP’s West Visayas Chapter and the West Visayas State University in organizing this seminar, which is definitely timely considering the present environmental challenges besetting our country today, and the lack of accountability for those who are responsible for aggravating our environmental problems.

As future leaders and public servants, the key to our ecological survival lies in your hands. Whether you like it or not, your generation has the burden of ensuring our survival amidst the current environmental crisis that we are facing.

Let me give you a brief moment to digest two words that I just used.

Survival. Crisis.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, our environmental situation as of this very moment is severe. It is dire. Nay, it is desperate.

Our very survival depends upon the action of our future generation of public administrators and civil servants; and by our survival, I do not only mean the survival of the City of Iloilo, or the Republicof the Philippines. The danger to our ecology is global. Humanity’s very existence is at stake. No one is safe, hence no one can afford to be apathetic. As the future leaders of our government, you have the monumental task of making sure that your children and grandchildren will have a world to live on. If you follow the lack of enthusiasm of your present leaders, if you fail to hold accountable the leaders of this country who still refuse to acknowledge the gravity of the situation, then there is no hope left for this country. Indeed, there is no hope left for this planet.

Which is why I used the word crisis.

There is a reason why so many high-level conferences were held among the leaders of the world regarding the state of our environment. The leaders of the world acknowledge that if we do not do something drastic within our lifetime, there may not be another generation for us to leave our legacy behind and enjoy the blessings of this Earth. The leaders of the free world have already discussed numerous measures, such as lowering greenhouse gas emissions and using alternative sources of power. Yet the fact still remains that our Ozone layer is still being depleted by unabated fossil fuel emissions. Despite the intentions of the international community to do away with harmful pollutants that destroy our Ozone layer, the countries of the world – both industrial and developing – are still dependent on fossil fuel.

One has to wonder – if our leaders are aware of the causes of our ecological problems, why not merely prohibit the use of these harmful substances and devices in order to save the environment?

The question may be simple, but the answer is more complicated than merely making a conscious choice of saving the environment. Going “green”, to use the parlance of environmentalists, is not an easy decision because of the repercussions of immediately shunning our energy sources. All nations in this planet are highly dependent on burning fuel in order to produce power. We have to burn fossil fuel in order to make our cars run, we have to burn fuel in order to light our lamps, and we have to burn fuel in order to cook our food. In other words, the modern way of life enjoyed by mankind is the price that must be paid in order to go “green”.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the reason why we are in a crisis. The only way to save our ecological system is to put a wrench in the well-oiled machine that is called the international economic system. Mass production, which began in the late 18th century, is dependent on energy, which requires us to burn fossil fuels. Transportation likewise requires us to emit greenhouse gasses. Meanwhile, the population explosion prompted us to cut down our rain forests in order to create room for housing projects.

To put it bluntly, we are placed between a rock and a hard place. Do we commit to drastic changes and reform our industrial society to save the planet; or do we continue the way we pillage the Earth and pollute the skies in order to keep our economies running, but atthe cost of our global eco-system?

A crisis indeed, my friends.

The sad part about this entire ordeal is that most of our leaders refuse to acknowledge that there is a problem. Instead of focusing on how to arrive at a feasible solution that will allow both our economy and our planet to survive, our leaders have turned a blind eye on the environment. It is the most sinister sin to be apathetic in a time of despair. To ignore all the warnings despite the church-bells ringing louder and louder as each day passes.

Our time is running out. The water levels of our oceans and seas are rising faster than at any rate in recorded history. Several major cities, including New York and Bangkok are already in danger of sinking due to global warming. As the glaciers in the north and south poles melt, our water levels continually rise at an alarming rate.

If you think that I am a naysayer, if you believe that this is all fiction, all you have to do is look at the recent disasters that hit our country. In 2008, this very City experienced the devastation caused by the flooding brought about by Typhoon “Frank”. I was then the mayor of Iloilo City, so I witnessed firsthand how my people struggled to survive against the onslaught of Typhoon “Frank”. Last year, majority of Metro Manila was under water due to Typhoon “Ondoy”. Last month, the strongest typhoon in the world for 2010, Typhoon “Juan”, utterly devastated Northern Luzon. These super typhoons are not merely “acts of God” which we can shrugged-off as mere natural disasters. The frequent and strong typhoons are caused by climate change, which is a by-product of humanity’s excessive industrial production and depleted forests and natural reserves.

The doomsday scenario that I am portraying may sound too fictional or “Hollywood” for you, but let me assure the distinguished audience that our environmental concerns are very real. Which brings us to the good governance side of this burning issue – ensuring social accountability of our local leaders in addressing the problems of our environment.

Before I tackle social accountability of our government leaders, and the civil service in general, let me assert that the evil root of climate change is a social sin that we are all guilty of in one way or another. In our economic system, all of us are either consumers or producers. Most of the time, we are even both. It is hypocritical of us to condemn excessive fossil fuel burning while we enjoy the luxuries of automobiles, airconditioning, and other power-generated devices. It is quite ironic that we condemn the logging of the trees in our forests when our very houses and appliances are made of the finest wood stolen by human hands from mother earth. Without demand, there will be no supply. Unfortunately, all of us here are addicted to fuel, on the opium of power consumption.

Nevertheless, despite this environmental crisis being a social sin of which all of us are partly guilty of, we cannot ignore the glaring fact of the lack of action of our leaders, both elected and appointed. The inaction of our leaders cannot be countenanced.

Thomas Jefferson once said that “When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property.” The immortal words of the former US President still holds sway today. The men and women who hold office are beholden to their people. They are not the masters of their constituents; rather, they are servants of those who place their trust upon them.

The officials of this country are accountable to the people, for that is the very essence of a republican and democratic form of government. As the cliché goes, public office is a public trust. As the proverbial public property of the general citizenry, government officials must answer to the wrath of the people if they are found guilty of wrongdoing. In fact, as we officials are considered public property, the citizens can easily alienate or dispose of us if we are not performing to par of their expectations. We serve at the pleasure of the people.

So I encourage the distinguished audience to voice out your displeasure. As individuals, your malcontent may be mere whispers. But as a collective, your redress shall be heard like a lion’s roar across the barren plains.

It cannot be denied that numerous officials of the government must be held accountable for the continuing deterioration of our eco-systems. Through both their inaction and their tolerance of activities that are harmful to our environment, our leaders have failed to stay true to their mandate of serving the best interest of their people.

As I have said, the warning signs have been paraded all over town for many decades now. Yet our leaders on both the local and national levels have refused to act upon the environmental crisis. Our officials have not addressed our excessive emissions of harmful gases by refusing to develop alternative and clean sources of energy. The country’s rainforests are still in danger of being completely wiped-out due to the inability of our leaders to curb illegal logging. The drainage systems, or the lack thereof, of our cities are still clogged with solid waste and other materials. Not even the frequent and deadly floods have prompted our government officials to swiftly and decisively act upon this persistent problem.

It is also inexplicable why our leaders continue to allow the rapid industrialization of our countryside without maintaining sufficient agricultural lands and forest reserves. The product of this irresponsible commercial expansion is the current ecological imbalance that we are experiencing. The profits, therefore, that we reap through aggressive industrial expansion must not be measured in Pesos, but by the number of lives sacrificed in paving over our croplands and forests. The victims of the super typhoons, flash floods, and avalanches are the true costs of the pillaging of our natural resources in the name of economic progress.

Good governance, ladies and gentlemen, is all about accountability. As a three-term Mayor of Iloilo City, as its current Representative in the House of Representatives, and as the Chairman of the House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability, I am elated that the responsible and visionary men and women of the ASPAP  – Western Visayas have dedicated today’s seminar to this most pressing concern of social accountability and the environment.

Three weeks ago, I filed a resolution before the House in order to urge the Committees on Ecology and Natural Resources to carefully study Republic Act 9729, or the Climate Change Act of 2009. There is a need to review its implementation in order to ensure that we are using the proper measures in order to combat climate change. While we already have mitigation measures developed by our think-tanks, it is also necessary to develop a more forward-thinking response to climate change by implementing adaptation measures in order to deal with our environmental problems. Mitigating measures are merely reactionary responses to the ill-effects of climate change. What is necessary is to adapt to the current state of our environment and worldwide ecological situation in order to ensure sustainable development while adjusting our economic and social programs to cope with the environmental crisis. We need to completely overhaul our way of thinking by adapting to the exigencies of our present ecological context.

I filed this resolution because I am genuinely concerned about the future of my children. If we do not do something revolutionary yet plausible soon, we might cross a threshold that will forever bar us to repair the damage that we have done. If the Rubicon is crossed and the threshold is reached, we would lose our chance to save the planet. Hence, I call upon the next generation of public administrators and civil servants to carry the torch and lead the efforts to save our environment.

Social accountability, however, is not limited to those occupying positions in the government. The leaders of the private sector who continue to disregard environmental laws for the sake of increased profits must also be held accountable. Since the dawn of industrialization, private companies have polluted our skies and seas through the excesses and by-products of mass production. Despite the desperate ecological crisis that we are facing today, these private firms continue to destroy our eco-systems by refusing to abate using heavy pollutants to manufacture their products. It is therefore necessary, ladies and gentlemen, that you police not only the government officials, but also the leaders of the private sector that engages in industrial practices which are destructive to our environment.

The next generation of leaders are being honed by the schools which are a part of the ASPAP. Thus, you have the responsibility to ensure that our next batch of statesmen and civil servants face our environmental problems with a mindset of social accountability. Our future leaders must put a premium on our eco-systems, despite the commercial benefits of irresponsible industrial expansion. The survival of this planet depends upon the ability of our future leaders to act responsibly and decisively in dealing with the worsening environmental crisis.

The task at hand is monumental and our future is bleak. Yet it is in our darkest days that we experience our finest hour.

I trust that the next batch of civil servants and government leaders shall have the mettle to take the bull by the horns and tackle this environmental crisis head-on, with unwavering resolve and unquestionable dedication. Let the rescue of this planet from imminent ecological destruction be the legacy of the next generation.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you.