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Commentary

‘Ulan,’ ‘ambon,’ ‘ampiyas’

/ 05:20 AM January 20, 2019

In which countries do 20 typhoons pass by every year on average? Only in the Philippines.

The country having been buffeted by such forces of nature for millennia, it is not surprising that climate is a significant determinant of Filipino culture. One only has to reflect on the nuances of the words we use for rain to see how embedded weather is in our psyche. In Tagalog, ulan is the most common word for rain. But we also use ambon (for showers), ampiyas (for spatter of rain), and bagyo (for heavy rains associated with typhoons). We also have words like tikatik and siyam-siyam (for prolonged rains due to monsoons). Other Philippine dialects surely have their own rich vocabulary to denote weather events.

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Scientists in a number of countries have, in fact, been grappling with how much influence a nation’s climate has on its citizens. A people’s language is but an expression of its deeply held beliefs and culture. Professor Greg Bankoff, an eminent historian of Philippine culture and climate, noted that climatic hazards played a key role in making us who we are as a people. Quite intriguingly, Bankoff, in one of his publications, even raised the possibility that the vagaries of our climate may have played a role in the 1896 Philippine revolution against our colonial masters.

This may not be as farfetched as it sounds. In recent times, researchers have observed that a changing climate plays a critical role in armed conflicts such as those in Syria and Somalia. For example,  a paper by Carl-Friedrich Schleussner and coworkers which was published by the US National Academy of Science shows from global datasets that the risk of armed conflict outbreak is enhanced by climate-related disasters in ethnically fractionalized countries. In addition, other scientists are exploring the causality between a nation’s climate and its people’s propensity toward, and acceptance of, autocratic leadership styles in the workplace and perhaps in its political leaders.

This is not to suggest that we are simply victims of the climate we live in. Indeed, we can probably argue that our resilience as a people has been forged living under such a tour de force of nature as “Yolanda.” We can smile at the most dire calamities knowing that we can recover no matter what. Indeed, climatespeak has permeated even the topsy-turvy world of our political circus. For example, we can ruefully accept today’s leaders no matter how repulsive they are, knowing that anyway, pana-panahon lang yan (weder-weder lang, as some would crudely translate it).

With climate changing, the optimist can say that, having survived such extreme climate events, Filipinos are far more ready than other nations to face the “new normal.” Those with a more pessimistic bias will probably retort that our capacity to adapt will not be enough to overcome a warming planet (as evidence for this, recall what happened after Yolanda struck). In any case, we must learn from, and build upon, the rich experience we have accumulated as a people in adapting to the whims of our climate.

Our past is inextricably linked to our climate. Our present is a continuing struggle to find innovative ways to cope and prosper in the “eye of the storm.” With global warming, our future promises to be an even wilder ride. Buhos!

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Rodel D. Lasco, PhD, is a lead author of several Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, including the fifth assessment report and the forthcoming sixth assessment report. He is the executive director of The OML Center, a foundation devoted to discovering climate change adaptation solutions (http://www.omlopezcenter.org/).

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