Cafe Scientifique: What On Earth Are We Doing?

As part of The Mind Museum's annual celebration of Earth Day, the President and CEO of WWF Philippines, Joel Palma, delivered a lecture on the local and global effects of climate change on different species. 

Of the last thirty years, twelve were considered to be very warm, with 2015 as the hottest year on record. This trend could easily continue into 2016, with the heat indices in Philippine provinces rising to record levels. For instance, Nueva Ecija recently experienced a heat index of 51°C. "I was in Angeles last week, and it had a heat index of 47°C," Joel added.

With climate change increasing the frequency of El Niño events, extremes in weather are to be expected. Last February, Fiji was hit by a massive storm, its winds blazing as fast as 285 km/hr. According to the Washington Post, Fiji normally experiences tropical storms, but rarely to the extent experienced with Cyclone Winston.

How have these weather patterns affected our species?

Last March 29, a forest fire ravaged Mt. Apo, the natural habitat of the endangered Philippine Eagle (with only 600 birds estimated to live in the wild). While the exact cause of the fire is still under investigation, Mt. Apo is reported to have been very dry for the last 4-5 months because of El Niño. Compounded with the intense summer heat, Joel stated, the conditions were ripe for a fire. 

The WWF also recently released a report indicating that the populations of some marine species have declined by half, while three-fourths of the world's corals are under threat due to factors like ocean acidification, rising ocean temperatures, and poor water quality from coastal development. At the current rate, it is projected that we may even lose all coral reefs by 2050.

The rise in sea levels has also affected our local sea turtle populations. Many of these migratory animals nest in the Tawi-Tawi islands, and they ideally have a 60 day incubation period for their eggs. However, elevated sea levels have exposed turtle egg nests. Even worse, saltwater can cover the nests for long periods of time, effectively drowning the baby turtles. (This is because turtle eggs are porous to allow the turtles to breathe; saltwater inundating the eggs will prevent gas exchange from occurring). 

Joel also shared an incident where his Australian colleagues studied turtle egg nests on a highly-protected shore, only to find, 60 days later, that none of the eggs hatched. Upon closer inspection, they found that all of them had been inundated with seawater. 

Because of El Niño, many coral reefs in Palawan and the Great Barrier Reef have also undergone bleaching: a stress response by corals, where they expel the photosynthetic microbes living within their tissues. These normally give corals their characteristically bright colors.

A portion of coral reef devastated by Cyclone Ita. 
[Photo credit: CNN website]

The Philippines used to be the 10th in global fish production, but because of the impacts of climate change on our fisheries, our production could reduce by 30-50% within the next 30 years. It is also projected that by 2050, tropical fish would migrate to the subtropics, because tropical waters would by then be too warm for them to thrive in.

Mindanao is also one of the hardest hit regions by the El Niño phenomenon - the agricultural sectors in provinces like Cotabato and Maguindanao have been crippled by drought, and the Majestic Waterfalls in Iligan City have even begun to dry out.

Lastly, rising temperatures also affect the production and prices of our crops. According to the IRRI, for every 1°C increase in night-time temperature, there would be a 10% decrease in rice production. This would naturally lead to rice becoming more expensive.

How can these issues be addressed? 

Last year, the parties that attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference drafted the Paris Agreement: an agreement to limit the rise in global temperatures to less than 2°C. While the Philippines is not considered as a significant contributor to carbon dioxide emissions, we and other Pacific Island states such as the Marshall Islands and Seychelles experience the brunt of climate change. Hence, our delegates were among those who strongly voted to keep the temperature rise to just 1.5°C. 

The Philippine target is to reduce carbon emissions by 70% by 2030, an admittedly difficult goal that requires the cooperation of both public and private sectors, and also by individuals. 

However, there is hope: there has been a reported decrease in global carbon dioxide emissions within the last two years. China is a normally heavy consumer of coal, but its use decreased by 2.9% in 2014, and there has also been rapid growth in the renewable energy sector.

The Bangui wind mills of Ilocos Norte.
[Photo credit: The Philippine Star website]

In the Philippines, there are also more sources of alternative energy, such as wind farms, solar-powered facilities, and geothermal power plants. All of these initiatives will take time and effort, Joel stated, as what we are currently feeling is the accumulated result of our consumption patterns from the past decades. However, the efforts will be worth it. "There is no Planet B," he said. "Earth is the only option we have, and we have to preserve it."

Cafe Scientifique is a world-wide movement that aims to bring science closer to the public through conversations with scientists, artists and thinkers. This is a FREE event. If you have a science topic you'd like us to discuss, please email us at

To help WWF and learn more about their projects, you can visit their website, volunteer, and also donate resources. To support The Mind Museum's programs and exhibitions, you can also visit our website. Your donations can even support the visit of public school students to the museum!

The Mind Museum would also like to thank WWF and HSBC for their continuous support for its events and educational programs. 

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