Climate Disaster Response in the Philippines, with Austin McKinney and Chetan Peddada

Dec 18, 2018

Pacific Delegates Austin McKinney and Chetan Pedada both have military backgrounds and technology expertise. They discuss ways in which machine-learning and military cooperation could help the Philippines cope with climate change and natural disasters and also reflect on the human impact that climate change is already having on these islands and how Filipinos are working together to respond.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Chetan Peddada and Austin McKinney. Chetan is a senior manager at a Fortune 75 company, and he is also a Pacific Delegate who came with us to Manila recently to look at climate change.

Austin is a recent graduate of Harvard Business School, a captain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, and senior manager at HubSpot. He also came with us to Manila to look at the climate change project as a Pacific Delegate. Both of them have military backgrounds.

Chetan, let's start with you. What was your basic overall impression of the trip just a few weeks ago with Carnegie Council?

CHETAN PEDDADA: Sure. First off, I'd like to thank you, Devin, and the Carnegie Council for organizing the trip and welcoming us and showing such a great time to learn more about climate change.

In terms of overall themes that struck me, first was the difference between the haves and the have-nots. This has been discussed widely on various different issues, but what really struck me was that there was a huge have-and-have-not divide in climate change as well. That was a big takeaway.

A second takeaway was that there was no scientific dispute of climate change. In many countries, including the United States, there is still that debate of "Is climate change really happening or not?" whereas in the Philippines I think everyone—political, economic, social, all of them from all those different aspects agreed that there was consensus around what was happening scientifically.

The third part, just general impression, the resiliency among the Filipinos in terms of facing almost 20 storms, five of which could be megastorms, every year, and having to build, pick themselves up, and then redo it over and over again. So those things struck me right off the bat.


Austin, how about you? What were some of your takeaways from the trip?

AUSTIN McKINNEY: I would also echo Chetan's sentiment, and just first of all, thanks for the opportunity to join the Carnegie Council in Manila as well as the Henry Luce Foundation for facilitating our overall trip.

I would say that the first takeaway for me was that I was incredibly impressed at the amount of research, ongoing policy innovation, and really frontline work that's happening in the Philippines. I was incredibly impressed. As Chetan was mentioning, one of the countries that will be facing the frontlines of climate change right away, and it's already happening, is the Philippines, so I was impressed to see the innovation and enthusiasm and resources starting to be allocated to this issue inside the Philippines, not only in the public sector but also in the private sector and community groups as well.

I would say that one of the most important takeaways for me personally was I think it's easy to forget how all-consuming this problem is in our global society. I think it's easy for all of us to approach a problem like climate change from our professional or academic specialty, background, or our lens of expertise. For example, for me I think about these problems mostly through a lens of national security or technology or broadly speaking public sector policy remedies, but that's because of the background, training, and interests that I have.

But what I was able to glean from this trip that was very beneficial is that this is a problem that affects all aspects of our human experience, from social and economic development, the role of technology, again the role of government, but also the role of business and the role of community groups, just across the board from human rights to legal frameworks to investing for the future, and business to be a good partner in this problem. I was taken aback at how all-encompassing a problem it is.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's drill down a little bit into those various sectoral roles. Both of you have technology backgrounds. You both also have military backgrounds.

Let's start with technology. Chetan, you lead a team at your company that builds machine-learning applications that are used throughout your organization, and you were also investigating some of the technological solutions to climate change response in the Philippines. What are some of your observations on the role of technology?

CHETAN PEDDADA: I'm a big believer in technology. I'm a big proponent of machine-learning. I truly think it's going to be a game-changer.

What I heard from a lot of the folks that we talked to across the spectrum was the interest in using technology via social media, via other vehicles to communicate with people during times of crisis, understanding how they could help shape the response, rebuild, and many other kinds of aspects of it. What I found really interesting was that the large tech companies—your Facebooks and Googles—already have several different platforms and tools to help people during times of crisis. I think that the Filipinos are leveraging those tools, but there is so much more opportunity.

I wrote a piece recently that details one way that technology can help the Filipinos specifically around early warning, mitigation, those types of areas, and specifically how can machine learning personalize the response. There was so much talk about this early-warning system that provides many different messages via telecom carriers, so how can we make that more personalized so that people can actually understand: "Okay, I'm living in the western part of Manila and my dwelling is a certain type. How can I put measures in place to mitigate those effects of a hurricane coming through?"

That was just one instance that I took away, but I think in general if we just take a step back I think there is plenty of opportunity in terms of public-private partnerships. I think that is something that a lot of leaders across the board were talking about.

We saw a green jobs act, for instance, that could bring about more of that partnership in ways that we haven't seen before. We also can see more corporate social responsibility (CSR) activity, more activity around the supply chain, how to make it more green and more sustainable, so I think many different areas. But a big takeaway for me is that they were just scratching the surface in terms of some of the initiatives that they wanted to put in place.

DEVIN STEWART: That piece you were talking about, was that in The Diplomat?

CHETAN PEDDADA: That was, yes.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you remember the title?

CHETAN PEDDADA: It was "Machine-Learning, Climate Change, and Disaster Management in the Philippines."

DEVIN STEWART: We'll include a link to it in the transcript.

Austin, you're also dealing with business and technology right now in your profession. What was your takeaway in terms of how technology might help out with climate change in the Philippines and elsewhere?

AUSTIN McKINNEY: I think that Chetan alluded to this, but I'll double down, which is oftentimes technology is wrongly perceived as a magic-bullet solution when it's how the leaders and humans who craft the technology implementation will really drive the results because ultimately they're human problems, and technology is there to facilitate a more efficient reaction or response by humans.

I remember that during one of our panels that we listened to in Manila we heard that many people in the Philippines received so many messages during times of disasters that they can start to ignore the ways that they receive text messages on their phones or they're receiving outreach with information and next steps for how they should respond to upcoming disasters. I was sitting there thinking that this sounded like a classic problem of inflation to me in that if you push something out there without respect for using it as a limited resource people will start to ignore it, and its value will erode away over time.

Inflation happens in money, it happens in the supermarket, it happens in technology, too. Ultimately, we have to be very thoughtful about how we craft the technological solutions so that they respect the same very human problems that affect other parts of our policy responses.

DEVIN STEWART: Austin, let's stay with you because you also wrote an article following up after the trip about the possibility of military cooperation—which I found to be very helpful—potentially between the United States, China, and the Philippines in terms of climate disaster response and maybe you could call it "trust-building initiatives."

With your background in the U.S. Air Force and with the Defense Innovation Unit, what was your takeaway in terms of a positive role for the military in response to climate change?

AUSTIN McKINNEY: I guess I'll start by saying that the views I'm expressing here are my own and do not reflect those of the U.S. government or the Department of Defense or the United State Air Force, who I work for.

That being said, I did write a piece in the Diplomatic Courier entitled, "It's Time for the U.S. and Chinese Militaries to Cooperate on HADR." HADR is an acronym that stands for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response.

The bottom line of the article was that I think there's a real opportunity caused by climate change in this region of the world for the United States and China to engage one another and local communities effectively in the way that they respond to disasters to help the local population. I start the article by pointing out that the United States and China's current relationship has not been under this much stress in decades. We're all very familiar with the heated political rhetoric that's happening between our two countries and the economic tension through possible trade wars, blocked investments, blocking tariffs on trade. That has been in the news pretty frequently.

However, I think that one way that this is spilling over into other parts of the U.S.-Chinese relationship is in the way that our militaries interact together. I've seen a few concrete instances within the past year of the U.S. and Chinese militaries growing farther apart, the first being that the United States rescinded China's invitation to the Rim of the Pacific multilateral military exercises that were going on in the region that China had previously participated in. This is important because it was the most formal and large-scale way for the U.S. and Chinese militaries to cooperate under friendly circumstances.

Then in more recent times, and just as recently as last month, the United States Navy and the Chinese Navy have had close encounters where both sides accused the other of alleged aggressive maneuvering, and this could ultimately lead to an accident in the South China Sea or other nearby areas from militaries that aren't communicating effectively and that don't have enough trust to reach out to the other side in times of uncertainty or times of tension. This is not something where you want to have two great powers operating with such uncertainty, lack of effective communication, and just tension.

So I thought that, Taking the climate change results in Southeast Asia as a given, what are opportunities for collaboration? We know that the United States and the Philippines have been longstanding treaty and military allies with a very complex military relationship, and that is going to be I think a given going forward.

However, in recent years the current government in the Philippines under President Duterte has reached out to China and tried to grow closer relationships, primarily through economic aid and business investment and also closer political relations as well. But the Philippine-Chinese relationship militarily is still pretty thin. So I thought the Philippines would be a great case example for how the United States can work with its current partners and allies like the Philippines but also integrate the Chinese military under the auspice of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response.

This would require the United States and China with their local partners, in this case the Philippines, to come to an agreed framework for how they would interoperate together under a period of disaster. It would be creating mechanisms for sharing information and sharing responsibility under such circumstances.

Then the next step would be establishing trilateral exercises with the host nation—again with the United States and Chinese—to operate together under training circumstances that are not tense and allow their military professionals to learn how to integrate effectively so that when the next disaster struck the region the Philippines, China and the United States would be ready to respond effectively together.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you very much, Austin, for that very helpful suggestion. I've been sharing your article with some colleagues.

I'd like to get Chetan's perspective on the same question. Chetan was an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, completing tours in Afghanistan and South Korea. Do you agree with Austin's assessment, Chetan, and also are there other ways that the military might play a positive role in climate change?

CHETAN PEDDADA: Yes, absolutely. I think Austin's points are all very valid. What I found interesting when I was down there was when we were talking to some senior military officials and hearing their thoughts on climate change and how they were responding.

One of the things that really struck me was that the Filipino military was taking a fairly active role in trying to change their operations to make them more sustainable and more eco-friendly. One thing that they mentioned was the fact that they were really trying to resist the urge to give away a lot of their land that was untouched by development to the government so that they could develop it and build it up, and they were taking a very active role in saying that "We want to preserve these areas," and large areas. In fact, in Manila itself there is a massive area right in the heart of the city that the military controls and doesn't want to give up. So I think that's a very interesting point.

The second part that really struck me was the changes that they were making to things like plastic bags, for instance, in their commissary. They were really trying to root out a lot of the non-biodegradable measures that had been put in place for many decades. So they were taking an active role there.

Finally, I think one of the generals also said that they were setting up a center to essentially export their knowledge of how to counter climate change. The Philippines obviously has had a lot more experience than most other countries, so the military was taking an active role in training up other countries—Vietnam, Thailand, and whatnot—in terms of how they could counter some of the extreme weather patterns there.

That was very specific to the Philippines. I think closer to home the U.S. Army is trying to retrofit a lot of their bases so that they're more sustainable and that they're more resistant to some of these adverse effects of the climate. I think those are measures that we're putting in place. Obviously, the U.S. military has a massive footprint when it comes to those types of things, so it is a very commendable effort and very difficult effort to try to do it all overnight.

Those are some of my takeaways from specifically climate change and how those militaries are trying to change the way that they've operated for several decades and make it a more sustainable thing going forward.

DEVIN STEWART: It has been great having both of you on the phone and here in person today. Before we go, are there are any final thoughts from either of you or both of you on maybe the role of business, media, law, or the community, any other major takeaways from the trip to the Philippines with Carnegie Council? First to you, Austin.

AUSTIN McKINNEY: I would say that a takeaway that we haven't had a chance to talk about yet that relates to my earlier point about these being very human-centric problems is that the way that we organize ourselves as society and as a government will make a real difference in how we can respond to climate change and how we can respond specifically to moments of disaster.

I'm recalling one of the speakers in Manila discussing the Climate Change Commission of the Philippines and its organizational structure. The background here is that this is a semi-independent part of the government that is actually chaired by the president and charged with dealing with climate change on behalf of the Philippines.

The positive side of having the president chair this Commission is that it receives a lot of attention and it receives the resources and prestige of the office of the presidency. The downside of having the president chair the Commission is that it can only formally meet when his schedule allows for it, and just as you'd imagine, the president of the Philippines is a very busy person, thus hindering the ability of the Climate Change Commission to formally meet and progress its work.

Also, we heard about how the Philippines is considering combining the role of disaster response with climate change prevention under one organization, which would be a major institutional shift and different from how we do it in a country like the United States, where we have a separation between the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They have different remits—one of response and one of prevention.

I saw that as an opportunity for potential institutional or organizational innovation by the Philippines but also realizing that how we organize ourselves could have very real consequences for how we distribute resources, how we distribute our time and attention, and ultimately how we're able to respond, so just the importance of institutional design thinking upfront in its role in empowering us to respond.

DEVIN STEWART: Thanks, Austin.

Chetan, any final thoughts?

CHETAN PEDDADA: Yes. A couple come to mind. The first one was an interesting legal case that we got exposure to when we were in the Philippines. This one, basically to give some context around it, a group was essentially not suing but was investigating several carbon producers—think of the large fossil fuel producers as well as the coal companies and whatnot—and trying to understand what impact climate change was having on human rights.

I think that was the first case that was brought to light tying human rights and climate change, and I thought that was really interesting, just hearing the human impact of what toll this is taking, what responsibilities do companies have in terms of changing their supply chain, disclosing information around their climate change mitigation plans, what impact it was having on shareholders, etc. I think those types of legal and those types of moral questions are pretty interesting to dig into. We're starting to do some of it as well. I think in New York there's a case as well that is investigating the role of carbon producers in climate change. So that was one big takeaway for me.

The second one was more of this human element that Austin mentioned. We went and visited a local sort of borough that was looking to combat climate change.


CHETAN PEDDADA: Malabon, yes. Essentially, it was a small town, if you will, and they were planting mangroves and talking about the difficulties of growing these mangroves and what other stakeholders were impacting their efforts as well as some of their policies that were coming from the national government that were impacting what they were doing.

Just watching them talk about basic things like, "We need to have security at night for these mangroves so that people don't steal the seedlings," those types of things were really interesting to hear. I think that climate change very much is human-driven. It's going to happen a lot at the micro level, and I think those things really brought it to light and made it real for me.

Lastly, as I mentioned earlier, Filipinos are very resilient. They have concept of bayanihan that we heard was basically helping each other out during times of distress. If you think about, one of the speakers said that two-thirds of the population of the Philippines was going to be impacted by climate change, so really this spirit of resilience is incredibly important in terms of trying to get things on the right path so that they can build a society that can really be more resilient to climate change.

Those are some takeaways in closing.

DEVIN STEWART: Chetan Peddada and Austin McKinney were both Pacific Delegates with us in the Philippines recently through the Carnegie Council Asia Dialogues program. They are also both Carnegie New Leaders in New York City and Boston.

Thank you both for joining us today.

CHETAN PEDDADA: Thank you, Devin.

AUSTIN McKINNEY: Thanks, Devin, and thanks to Carnegie and the entire team for the opportunity to chat.

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