There Are Now 100 People Who Refuse to Eat Until Leaders Take On Climate Change

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Mother Board, WARSAW, Poland

Image: 350.org

"Burning coal is the moral choice, particularly for the poor," Marc Morano, a notorious American climate change denier, smugly said in a near-empty press conference inside Warsaw's 58,000 seat soccer stadium where this year's UN climate talks are underway.

Not five minutes later, in the very same chair, sat a hungry, young Filipino climate activist who pleaded with world leaders to make drastic cuts in CO2 emissions that are creating the conditions for super-storms like Haiyan, with its 235 mph winds and two-story storm surge. He hadn't eaten for a week. Telling him and the 18 million people affected by typhoon Haiyan that the "moral choice" is to burn more coal is like telling a drowning man he needs to drink more water.

"Our people are suffering the terrible impacts of a climate crisis they had no part in creating," said Gerry Arances. The activist, along with scores of others, is on a hunger strike inspired by the example of Yeb Saño, his country's lead negotiator in Warsaw.

Only days after the most powerful storm in history made landfall leaving 4,000 dead and millions displaced, Saño made a tearful speech about the devastation at the opening of the international climate negotiations known as COP 19. In that speech, which already has nearly a million YouTube views, Saño announced he would "fast for the climate" until countries agreed to take serious action on climate change.

Haiyan (known as Yolanda in Philippines) was the 24th typhoon to hit the Philippines this year. Since 2009 the country has been smacked hard by a series of super-typhoons, storms with stronger winds and heavier rains than in the previous decades. Pounded by storm after storm, year after year, damages are totaling tens of billions of dollars with deaths now in the tens of thousands.

Bottom line: as climate change continues to ramp up, the Philippines are at risk of being 'typhoon-bombed' back to the stone age.

Arances, an activist with the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice, is angry. And, like many Filipinos, desperate. That's why he, Saño, and more than 100 supporters are currently starving themselves in Warsaw.

"Our voices are not being heard here in Warsaw," Arances told me.

Thousands of people around the world have joined the 'fast for climate', including students in US colleges. Churches in the Philippines have called for a national 24-hour fast for the climate and in solidarity with those affected by Haiyan, he said.

Two days ago, an Avaaz online petition with more than 600,000 signatures calling for action was delivered to the Warsaw climate talks. Remarkably, those signatures were collected in only a week. And on the second last day of UN climate talks, more than 800 participants, including Arances, staged a mass walkout "in protest against rich industrialized countries jeopardizing international climate action" they said.

The UN talks here are part of an OMG-lengthy-and-acronym-laden process to create a new climate treaty to keep global warming to less than 2˚ C and to help poorer countries survive the mounting impacts. In 2009, at the semi-infamous Copenhagen talks, the rich countries made a deal with the poor: 'we'll give you $billions now ramping up to $100 billion a year by 2020 in exchange for making small CO2 cuts instead of taking any serious action to reduce emissions'.

The money flowed for the first three years but has now dried up. Some countries like Canada, Japan, Australia are reneging on making even their small cuts. The rest don't want to talk about making the big cuts that are supposed to be part of a 2015 climate treaty.

"Our fast is a way of letting the world know that many countries are not living up to their responsibilities to reduce emissions."

"Shame on America, Canada, Australia, Japan for blocking the way to a fair and just climate treaty," said Arances.

"These governments are saying it is OK to let people die. Filipinos' lives depends on their actions."

And speaking of callous governments, Poland decided to host the International Coal and Climate Summit at the same time as the UN climate talks. It was all about the energy unicorn known as 'clean coal'.

"This a slap in the face to the Philippine people. Poland wants to burn more coal and kill more of us," he said.

Filipinos get climate change like no other country, with more than 80 percent of them saying they've been personally impacted. They understand what it means when scientists said this week that the atmosphere now holds 42 percent more CO2 than it did 250 years ago. Most of this CO2 is from burning coal. And that this extra CO2 traps more heat from the sun, which is heating up the oceans and land, creating the conditions that spawn super storms.

After the 2009 super-typhoon Ondoy devastated the Manila region where he lives, Arances worked to help villagers living along riverbanks to relocate. It wasn't until they understood global warming will continue to get worse that they agreed to move. "I'll never forget the shocked look on their faces."

That science can't directly attribute the more frequent and powerful storms to climate change doesn't change the reality in the Philippines, he said.

After a a week, Arances is feeling strong, but quickly notes he hasn't fasted as long as Saño, who is on his 11th day without eating. While none of Arances' family were directly affected by the typhoon, members of his organization lived in the now-ruined city of Tacloban where Haiyan came ashore.

"Our fast is a way of letting the world know that many countries are not living up to their responsibilities to reduce emissions."

He is proud of Saño. And, compared to most other countries, the Philippine delegation is seen as a true progressive light in gloomy winter days in Warsaw. But it turns out the Philippine government has a smoky dark heart.

"The government has approved 17 new coal power plants and considers proposals for 25 more," said Arances.

Coal production leapt from three million tons in 2007 to 10.4 million tons in 2011. About 27 percent of the country's electricity comes from coal and the government wants to double that. Arances calls this a "betrayal". Although there is a renewable energy law on the books, it pushes the bulk of the costs on to consumers, while enormous health and climate pollution costs of coal go unpaid.

"There is a big fight coming to the Philippines over coal and climate change," he said.