The Philippines, aided by the international community, is in the early stages of digging out from the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan, which struck on Friday, leaving, according to early estimates, thousands of people dead and more than 650,000 displaced. The United Nations is estimating that 2.5 million people in the country are in need of food and that more than 20,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed.
Part of the reason the damage was so severe is that the typhoon (what those of us in the western hemisphere would call a hurricane) was one of, if not the, strongest on record. Climatologists have said that winds climbed to 195 miles per hour, with gusts hitting 230 mph.
It was less than a year ago that the Philippines was hit by another typhoon – Typhoon Bopha – that killed 1,900 people and caused more than $1 billion in damage. The latest pummeling his country has endured was evidently the last straw for Naderev "Yeb" Sano, the lead Filipino representative to the current round of United Nations climate change talks. In an impassioned speech yesterday, Sano said it's high time that the world acknowledge the culprit behind these mega-storms:
To anyone who continues to deny the reality that is climate change, I dare you to get off your ivory tower and away from the comfort of your armchair. I dare you to go to the islands of the Pacific, the islands of the Caribbean and the islands of the Indian ocean and see the impacts of rising sea levels; to the mountainous regions of the Himalayas and the Andes to see communities confronting glacial floods, to the Arctic where communities grapple with the fast dwindling polar ice caps, to the large deltas of the Mekong, the Ganges, the Amazon, and the Nile where lives and livelihoods are drowned, to the hills of Central America that confronts similar monstrous hurricanes, to the vast savannas of Africa where climate change has likewise become a matter of life and death as food and water becomes scarce. Not to forget the massive hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern seaboard of North America.
And if that is not enough, you may want to pay a visit to the Philippines right now.
Sano added, "What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness."
But the latest reports show that we're not doing a good job of stopping the madness at all. According to a new International Energy Agency outlook, "Energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions are projected to rise by 20% to 2035, leaving the world on track for a long-term average temperature increase of 3.6 °C, far above the internationally-agreed 2 °C climate target." That projection takes into account already-announced efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change, so we're not doing anywhere near enough with what's currently on the table.
The U.N. Environment Program agrees, stating in a recent report that "even if nations meet their current climate pledges … the door to many options to limit temperature increase to a lower target of 1.5° C will be closed." So not only are we doing too little now, but we're losing the opportunity to take less-painful measures than those that will be required down the road when the problem is more severe.
Now, no one event, super-storm or otherwise, is proof positive of climate change. Maybe Typhoon Haiyan was just a freak storm that would have happened anyway. Perhaps climate change played a tiny role, the absence of which wouldn't have lessened the damage.
But research has linked climate change and the severity, if not the frequency, of hurricanes. Rising sea levels will also make the storm surges that come with those hurricanes worse (and it seems the storm surge was the real killer in the Philippines, as it was during Hurricane Sandy). And even if climate change had nothing to do with Haiyan at all, the typhoon provides a stark reminder that, unless the world can get its act together, super-storms could very well go from extraordinary to just plain ordinary.
Sano, the Filipino climate negotiator, has pledged to go on a hunger strike while at the 12-day climate change talks "until a meaningful outcome is in sight." Such an outcome would be doing us all a favor if it keeps storms like Haiyan from becoming the new normal.