Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: Haiyan reveals the threats faced by island nations

The scenes of devastation, the staggering death toll and the challenges of providing disaster aid are all beyond belief.

Typhoon Haiyan, the Chinese name for a sea bird known as a petrel, was predicted to be the strongest typhoon ever to hit the Philippines. It has lived up to that forecast, and worse. By some estimates, at least 10,000 people have died as winds reaching 190 mph tore through a swath of the central Philippines. Until searchers can comb through incredible swaths of debris in Tacloban and other towns and villages, the full lethality of the typhoon will not be known.

For now, the world’s focus must be on providing relief to hundreds of thousands of people without homes, electricity, hospitals, food and safe drinking water. Destroyed airports, roads and bridges – as well as reports of widespread looting and angry mobs – will complicate that task. Parts of the Philippines were recently ravaged by an earthquake, so the United States and other nations must help Filipinos with whatever assistance they so desperately need.

Although some are already criticizing the Philippine government’s initial response to the disaster, leaders there made an extra effort to evacuate people prior to the storm’s landfall, which undoubtedly saved thousands of lives.

Not surprisingly, the typhoon is sparking debate on whether the fury of this storm can be attributed to global climate change. That is a tricky business.

As most atmospheric scientists will tell you, it is difficult to attribute a single meteorological event to longer-term warming of the climate, caused largely by fossil fuel emissions. But what most scientists will tell you is that rising sea levels and other documented impacts of climate change are sure to increase the severity and frequency of disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan.

Interestingly, a climatologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kerry Emanuel, published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in July predicting that the frequency as well as the intensity of tropical cyclones would increase in the 21st century. Based on his modeling, Emanuel suggests that the increases would be most prominent in the western North Pacific, which is where Haiyan struck.

Whether or not this typhoon can be linked to global warming, there is no doubt that leaders in the Philippines believe their country is highly vulnerable and are frustrated by the failure of industrialized nations to take the climate threat seriously and reduce emissions that are warming the atmosphere.

On Monday, while the devastation of Haiyan was drawing international attention, delegates gathered in Warsaw, Poland, for the annual U.N. summit on climate change. There they heard a powerful speech by Yeb Sano, a Filipino diplomat.

“Typhoons such as Yolanda (Haiyan) and its impacts represent a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to procrastinate on climate action,” Sano said. “Warsaw must deliver on enhancing ambition and should muster the political will to address climate change.”

Rising sea levels are just one of the challenges that island nations face in the South Pacific. Endemic poverty, poor building standards and depleted groundwater compound the threat.

Yet well before Haiyan, those who live in the most vulnerable island nations were trying to get the world’s attention on minimizing the worst possible impacts of climate change.

Will they get it now?