A.G. Saño works for climate justice after living through Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Photo by A.G. Saño.

By Jonathan Braden

May 28 2022

A.G. Saño from the Philippines has seen the worst of the climate crisis. He has lost loved ones and seen his country torn apart. Yet, he still works for climate justice and draws hope from Catholics coming together around the world to bring Laudato si’ to life.

In his darkest moment, A.G. Saño’s faith in God did not escape him. Rather, hours into Typhoon Haiyan’s assault on the Philippines, he leaned into his relationship with God and prayed the words he never wanted to say.

“God, please let my body be found.”

So dark were his surroundings. He had already heard the top of his concrete hotel rattle and seen roofs fly off of homes, exposing residents. Saño had witnessed glass doors shatter and heard scared residents shriek.

Typhoon Haiyan, likely made stronger by the climate crisis, was bearing down on Saño’s father’s hometown, Tacloban City, Philippines. The storm produced winds carrying sustained speeds of 190 to 195 mph for more than 200 miles, and waves higher than 15 feet. In total, Typhoon Haiyan is estimated to have killed or made 15,000 people missing, although an exact figure may likely never be known.

But somehow, by the grace of God, a few hours later in Tacloban City, Saño was still breathing and still conscious. He was ready to continue his work of caring for our common home.

Typhoon Haiyan caused nearly $6 million in damages and is estimated to have destroyed 90 percent of Tacloban. Photo by A.G. Saño.

Finding the will to keep going

Even after experiencing Typhoon Haiyan which would have made other people walk away, feeling despondent about what they had encountered, Saño, an artist and teacher, is dedicated to achieving climate justice, and has been advocating for real action against the climate crisis for years.

Saño had tragically lost his good friend Agit Sustento; Sustento’s wife, Geo; and their three-year-old son, Tarin. Nonetheless, he volunteered to witness the desperate clean-up of bodies and debris in Tacloban City. He collected 78 dead bodies, some still warm to the touch. The nightmares tortured him for weeks.

Agit Sustento, his wife, and their child. (photo by A.G. Saño)

However, he kept going. In 2018, he and others, including his brother Yeb Saño, completed the Climate Pilgrimage, a more than 900-mile journey from Vatican City to COP24 in Katowice, Poland. The pilgrimage was inspired by Laudato si’ and elicited prayers from around the world. In Poland, A.G. Saño’ inspired thousands of climate activists with his moving story.

A.G. Saño, far left, during the Climate Pilgrimage.

He works with the “Black Pencil Project”, a group of photographers that travels to affected communities and supports them after disasters. During those trips, Saño teaches art as a form of therapy to help youth process the disaster.

“It’s a big part of relief efforts now. It has to go hand in hand with other relief efforts,” he said.

Saño also inspires hope through his murals. He often paints the outline of them and lets others fill in the gaps. It is that same process he followed for his memorable “climate justice” polar bear mural that he painted on the Climate Pilgrimage.

Saño and other climate activists completed the above mural in Italy during the 2018 Climate Pilgrimage.
‘Gifted with a second life’

Saño does all of this because of the friends that he has lost, and also for the lives that he hopes to save, as well as the people who could be affected by the next Typhoon Haiyan.

“Being there, witnessing what’s happening, it’s like seeing a glimpse of the future of other nations, of other communities,” he said. “I knew I had a responsibility to tell the story. Having survived, I figured I’m gifted with a second life, a second chance. And I don’t want to waste this chance.”

Hundreds of thousands of people like Saño, all committed to integral ecology and the care of our common home, are uniting this week for Laudato si’ Week, which started Sunday and ends May 29.

Each day of the celebration features global, regional, and local events tied to one of the seven Laudato si’ goals and the seven sectors of the Laudato si’ Action Platform, all of which underpin the concept of integral ecology. During Laudato si’ week, the faithful seek to hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, as Pope Francis writes in Laudato si’.

‘The cry of the poor’

Sanõ knows the cry of the poor too well. He hears it throughout the 7,641 islands of his country, all of which are particularly vulnerable due to climate change.

Melting glaciers and the loss of Greenland and Antarctica’s ice sheets, along with warm ocean water expanding, have contributed to rising sea levels around the world, which make storm surges worse.

A warmer planet means warmer oceans, as the ocean absorbs much of the heat from greenhouse gas emissions. Warmer oceans can lead to more powerful storms, because the storms have more water vapor to collect while forming.

The Philippines is particularly at risk of all of these changes, despite the poor country having little to do with the rising level of greenhouse gas emissions.

“The deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: ‘Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest’” (LS 48).

Saño has found real hope in Pope Francis’ Laudato si’ and feels encouraged that the document has transformed millions of Catholics around the world to make caring for creation a priority in their lives, as evident by the ongoing Laudato si’ Week that is uniting hundreds of thousands of Catholics around the world.

“I was able to use that to talk about how we can solve the crisis,” Saño said. “We need to look beyond the corners, the walls of our home, looking at the whole planet as something we need to look after . . . We need to care for the world as a common home.”

-Vatican News