Tue, Nov 19, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Is climate change to blame for Typhoon Haiyan?

The Philippines has been hit by 24 typhoons in the past year but the power of Haiyan was off the scale, killing thousands and leaving millions homeless. Is there even worse devastation to come?

By John Vidal and Damian Carrington  /  The Guardian

A rainbow appears above Typhoon Haiyan survivors desperate to catch a flight from the Tacloban airport on Nov. 15. The death toll from Typhoon Haiyan in the devastated Philippine coastal city of Tacloban was 4,000, a notice board at City Hall said on Friday, nearly double the nationwide toll provided by the government in Manila.

Photo: Reuters

Just as the world was beginning to take in the almost unimaginable devastation wrought by typhoon Haiyan, a young Filipino diplomat, Naderev Sano, was getting ready to lead his country’s negotiations in the UN climate talks in Warsaw, Poland. Yeb, as he is known, is a scientist and head of his country’s national climate commission and had flown out of Manila just hours before the vastness of Haiyan had become apparent.

By last Monday morning, Sano knew that the Philippines had been struck by possibly the strongest storm ever measured, killing many thousands of people and making millions homeless. He took the floor and, in some trepidation in front of the delegates of 190 countries, gave an extraordinary, passionate speech in which he clearly linked super typhoon Haiyan to manmade climate change and urged the world to wake up to the reality of what he said was happening from Latin America to south east Asia and the US. He lambasted the rich countries, and dared climate change deniers to go to his country to see for themselves what was happening.

When he sat down, sobbing, he was given a standing ovation.

This was not just diplomatic theatricals or righteous grandstanding by a developing-country diplomat about the snail-like speed of the climate talks, which have dragged on for years and are not likely to conclude until 2015. What few people in Warsaw knew until Sano had nearly finished his speech was that even as he was addressing the UN, his brother was digging people out of the rubble of the ruined city of Tacloban and he and his family still did not know the fate of other relatives.

Normally stone-hearted diplomats broke down, and Sano, who calls himself a “revolutionary” and a “philosopher” on Twitter [@yebsano], said later he would go on hunger strike for the whole of the two-week meeting. In the last 24 hours he has been joined by 30 activists.

Extreme weather

Just as significantly, his speech has reopened the growing debate about whether the extreme weather events seen around the world over the past few years, including Hurricane Sandy, the melting of the Arctic sea ice and heatwaves in the US, Russia and Australia, can be attributed to manmade climate change. If they can, the argument goes, then the urgency of addressing the problem becomes incontrovertible; if it doesn’t, then it allows countries to continue delaying action or reducing their commitments.

Logic, at least, suggests a clear link between Haiyan and a warming world. Storms receive their energy from the ocean and the warming oceans that we can expect from global warming should therefore make superstorms such as Haiyan more likely. New research suggests that the Pacific is, indeed, warming — possibly at its fastest rate in 10,000 years. If the extra heat stored in the oceans is released into the atmosphere, then the severity of storms will inevitably increase. In short, a warmer world will probably feature more extreme weather.

This week, atmospheric scientists were clear. “Typhoons, hurricanes and all tropical storms draw their vast energy from the warmth of the sea. We know sea-surface temperatures are warming pretty much around the planet, so that’s a pretty direct influence of climate change on the nature of the storm,” said Will Steffen, director of the Australian National University (ANU) climate change institute.

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