BATANGAS, Philippines (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Muslim cleric from the city of Batangas walked up to Archbishop Ramon Arguelles and held out his hand. “I am Imam Abdul Karim,” he said, introducing himself. “I want to join you in your fight against coal.”
Arguelles, a prominent Catholic figure from the neighboring city of Lipa, smiled and firmly shook Karim’s hand.
Earlier this month, the two men met at the launch of the Piglas Batangas! Piglas Pilipinas! (Break Free Batangas! Break Free Philippines!) campaign, when thousands of people gathered to protest as part of a global movement against fossil fuels.
But while crowds in other countries blockaded and shut down coal plants, Karim and Arguelles are aiming for a more peaceful – and potentially powerful – means of uniting people against coal: religious faith.
The Philippines already has 17 operating coal plants and Department of Energy has approved 29 more, all due to go online by 2020. By then, according to consultancy firm IHS, coal will make up 56 percent of the country’s energy mix.
But in a country where religious faith is strong, activists believe the one thing as powerful as the Philippines’ dependence on coal is its willingness to listen to its religious leaders.
Out of a population of 102 million, almost 75 percent of Filipinos are Catholics and another 10 percent belong to different Christian denominations. Five percent of Filipinos are Muslim.
Using the common language of faith, the country’s religious leaders are trying to build a movement against the construction of the new coal plants.
The day of the Break Free protest, Arguelles held a mass before an estimated 10,000 people and reminded them of what Pope Francis had said about the environment, when he asked Catholics to embrace an “ecological conversion.”
“This is the command of God. We should take care of his creation,” Arguelles said.
That same afternoon, Karim spoke to the faithful in his mosque about Allah’s message on environmental conservation. “Protect Mother Nature. Nature is the source of life,” Karim said. “That’s what we are taught as Muslims.”
As is the case in so many countries, the Philippines’ stance on climate change is rife with contradictions.
At last year’s Paris negotiations, which reached a new global agreement to deal with climate change, outgoing President Benigno Aquino III asked for drastic efforts to reduce carbon emissions, making the plea on behalf of the Philippines and other nations that are most vulnerable to extreme weather and other effects of climate change.
Barely a month later, he attended the inauguration of a 300-megawatt (MW) coal-fired power plant in Davao city.
In the run-up to the conference, the Philippines declared it would cut its emissions 70 percent by 2030. But on March 20, presumptive President Rodrigo Duterte lambasted the UN’s call for developing countries to stop using coal as “hypocritical.”
Even Batangas province itself mirrors the paradox: It is host to a coal-fired power plant and a 63 MW solar farm.
But the Philippines can’t afford to straddle the divide, activists warn.
While the country’s emission levels are low, accounting for only 0.3 percent of global emissions as of 2010, if all the proposed coal plants are built the country will have trouble meeting its emission reduction goal, according to Climate Action Tracker, an analysis of global efforts to reduce climate change.
And as global temperatures continue to rise, the Philippines finds itself on the frontline of the extreme weather events that often come with climate change.
In 2013, the country was hit by typhoon Haiyan, which killed at least 6,000 people, and droughts are causing farmers to go hungry in the southern region of Mindanao.
Coal also has a more immediate adverse effect on people’s health, experts say. A 2016 report by Greenpeace and other non-governmental organizations warned that allowing additional coal plants to operate in the Philippines could more than double the annual number of premature deaths due to exposure to toxic pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.
Religious leaders say prayers, however, won’t be enough to wean the Philippines from coal.
Arguelles has asked local leaders to sign a covenant stating they will prioritize environmental protection when making decisions on behalf of the people.
One of his biggest challenges is engaging newly elected Governor Hermilando Mandanas, who has said he remains open to approving coal-fired power plants in Batangas as long as they meet requirements for lower emissions levels.
In Quezon province, Father Raul Enriquez said churches must first and foremost stop accepting donations from companies engaged in extractive industries. Some parishes take money from coal and mining companies, he said, and “other convents were built on money that came from power plants.”
In his parish in Agdangan, Enriquez, who is a member of the Philippines Against Dirty Energy Resources group, led the construction of the Luminous Grace Sanctuary, which is powered by a solar generator.
He sees other priests installing solar panels on their churches, giving him hope that the message is getting through.
“Yes to God, No to Coal!” Enriquez said. “That should be our battle cry.”
Reporting by Purple Romero; editing by Jumana Farouky and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate