Shortly after Super Typhoon Haiyan ravaged his home country in November of last year, a slim, soft-spoken and totally unknown climate negotiator from the Philippines found himself overcome by emotion when addressing a U.N. climate summit in Warsaw, Poland.
Yeb Saño, one of three climate commissioners from the Philippines, broke down in tears as he pleaded with representatives from other nations to commit to reducing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent future superstorms like Haiyan. He spoke of family members still unaccounted for, combing through rubble to search for survivors.
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Saño started a hunger strike during the climate talks that gained participants around the world, effectively establishing himself as the emotional core of the otherwise staid negotiations, which often get lost in a blizzard of acronyms and minutiae.
Now, however, as the U.N. climate talks enter a critical phase in Lima, Peru through Dec. 12, that voice of conscience is missing in action.
Instead of navigating the conference center in Lima, Saño finds himself at home in Manila, with no explanation as to why he was left off the Philippines' official delegation at the last minute. In an eerie and frightening coincidence, another super typhoon is bearing down on his country, and may hit the same region devastated by Haiyan last year.
His absence has not gone unnoticed, though, as many climate activists held a hunger strike at the start of the climate talks to mark his absence.
Reached by Skype in Manila, Saño says he is at a loss for why he is there, and not in Lima, but that he supports his government's negotiating position, which is to secure an agreement that would limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels, as world leaders have previously agreed to. So far, international emissions reduction commitments are woefully insufficient to meeting that goal.
"I am also wondering why I am not in Lima right now," he said. He remains a commissioner for climate change, one of three that his country has. The other two are in Lima. Typically, he said, all three go to the annual talks.
Residents arrive at an evacuation center in Tacloban city, Leyte province, central Philippines Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014, as they prepare for approaching Typhoon Hagupit.
"I can only speculate because I don't know what goes on in the minds of some people who have made this decision. I am reluctant to comment on this right now because things are not yet settled down right now, I am still at a loss as to why I am not on the delegation right now," he said.
"I stand supportive of what needs to be fought for in Lima and now I want to focus on the incoming storm and in fact it's probably a blessing in disguise that I am in the Philippines because there is a lot of work that needs to be done. it's probably a blessing in disguise that I am in the Philippines because there is a lot of work that needs to be done."
"We of course face another monster storm and I will be spending the next couple of days in helping communities insure that they are prepared."
If Saño is being reprimanded for his use of emotion in the diplomatic process, it makes little sense in the context of the climate talks, which have stretched back more than two decades. His may have been the most sympathetic outpouring in the history of the negotiations, however.
In a speech at the start of the meeting in Warsaw, Saño told delegates from more than 190 countries:
To anyone who continues to deny the reality that is climate change, I dare you to get off your ivory tower and away from the comfort of you armchair. I dare you to go to the islands of the Pacific, the islands of the Caribbean and the islands of the Indian ocean and see the impacts of rising sea levels; to the mountainous regions of the Himalayas and the Andes to see communities confronting glacial floods, to the Arctic where communities grapple with the fast dwindling polar ice caps, to the large deltas of the Mekong, the Ganges, the Amazon, and the Nile where lives and livelihoods are drowned, to the hills of Central America that confronts similar monstrous hurricanes, to the vast savannas of Africa where climate change has likewise become a matter of life and death as food and water becomes scarce. Not to forget the massive hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern seaboard of North America. And if that is not enough, you may want to pay a visit to the Philippines right now.
"We cannot sit and stay helpless staring at this international climate
stalemate. It is now time to take action. We need an emergency climate pathway," Saño said. "I speak for my delegation. But more than that, I speak for the countless people who will no longer be able to speak for themselves after perishing from the storm."
By the end of the speech, Saño was in tears.
He was not the first, nor is he the last, climate negotiator to gain fame for an emotional speech. Another was Kevin Conrad, who, while serving as the climate negotiator for Papua New Guinea, castigated the U.S. for blocking an agreement in Bali, Indonesia, in 2007. The U.S. backed down shortly after the speech.
However, he is among the only ones with crossover appeal from the hallowed halls of diplomacy to the anything goes world of advocacy, with people around the world inspired by his actions citing him in their hunger strikes and other campaigns.
As Super Typhoon Hagupit moves toward the Philippines, potentially striking the city of Manila or the city of Tacloban, which is still struggling to get back on its feet after last year's storm, Saño says his government does not see such storms as separate from climate change. Saño says his government does not see such storms as separate from climate change.
"We don't look at these extreme events in isolation from the overall patterns," he said. "The Philippines has been visited by extreme storms even outside of typhoon season, and outside the traditional typhoon belt in recent years."
Saño says his country is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, given that it is an archipelago that sits in the middle of the typhoon belt. It is prone to impacts from sea level rise as well as changes in storm intensity, frequency and tracks.
"We stand from a perspective of being a very vulnerable country and for us it is merely a matter of averting this crisis, meaning being able to fulfill the temperature targets" the world has already agreed to, he said. "The 2 degree Celsius target must be met if we are to prevent more dangerous climate change."
The goal of the Lima talks is to come up with a draft climate agreement that can be agreed to at another round of negotiations in Paris, France in December of 2015. The new treaty is slated to go into force in 2020. Saño says his fellow negotiators in Lima are working to ensure there is a "definitive direction toward an agreement in Paris that will be consistent with meeting that scientific imperative of not going beyond 2 degrees Celsius."
"That is our objective… that can only be done in our view if all countries are on board."
At the opening ceremony of the Lima talks, Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), told delegates that the world has used well over half (65%) its "carbon budget" that is compatible with the 2-degree goal, with just about 35% of the budget left. (The carbon budget is the estimated maximum amount of carbon dioxide that could be emitted over time while staying within the 2 degree Celsius limit.)
In order to keep the 2 degree target viable, Pachauri said, global emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, would need to peak within a decade global emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, would need to peak within a decade, and decline to zero or even negative numbers by the year 2100.
"We've reached a point where even the most ambitious targets by the richest nations will no longer be enough to meet the scientific target," Saño said, adding that this means there is a greater need for financial aid for the most vulnerable nations such as the Philippines.
For Saño, Typhoon Hagupit, which is known as Ruby in the Philippines, is just the latest example of how urgent this need is.
BY ANDREW FREEDMAN