Philippines Aid Must Include Climate Change Action

Sam White, Contributing Writer

Today marks the fifth day of a hunger strike led by Yeb Saño, Philippine delegate to the United Nations’ climate talks in Warsaw, Poland. In an emotional appeal on Monday, Saño expressed the grief that he and others from his country are experiencing in the wake of a supertyphoon initially estimated to have killed over 10,000 people. Saño vowed to fast until the convention takes concrete steps toward meaningful action on halting climate change. His powerful words were met with a standing ovation. Climate leaders are listening. It’s time for the rest of the world to follow suit.


Far exceeding the equivalence of a Category 5 cyclone, Typhoon Haiyan dwarfed hurricanes such as Sandy and Katrina when it made landfall, obliterating towns with sustained 150 mph winds and 20-foot storm surges that outmatched evacuation shelters. The Philippines, a nation comprising over 7,000 islands, is no stranger to annual typhoons, yet Haiyan, among the strongest cyclones in recorded history, caused unprecedented harm.


We, including Saño, have all heard the argument that no single storm can be pinned to human-made climate change. This is partially true. Extreme weather events do happen, and cyclones are an inevitable fact of life in tropical regions with warm oceans. However, the evidence showing that human-produced greenhouse gases contribute to climate change, including weather patterns, is overwhelming.


In a new report published this September, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stated that climate change was a key factor in roughly half of all worldwide extreme weather events in 2012, including Superstorm Sandy. Further, they noted, while natural variability — such as a peak high tide at the time of landfall — may be responsible for much of a storm’s impact, global warming can compound the damage. For instance, rising sea levels due to melting ice caps exacerbate the effects of storm surges, and warming oceans provide stronger and greater fuel for tropical cyclones, increasing their frequency and intensity.


The consequences of this come to bear all the more strongly on island nations like the Philippines. Low-lying coastal cities, often major economic centers and transit hubs, are typically the hardest hit. Haiyan reduced the city of Tacloban, the capital of the country’s Letye province and a major economic center, to rubble. The topography additionally makes it especially difficult both to evacuate before a storm and to bring in aid resources afterward. With Tacloban’s airport left in ruins and roads from other airports blocked by fallen trees and debris, rescue efforts have faced serious delays as survivors, like Saño’s brother, search in desperation for nonexistent food and assistance.


To be sure, the United States is among the array of world powers contributing vastly to recovery efforts. Its military, stationed around the globe, is uniquely equipped to mobilize resources in the region, delivering relief goods by helicopter and bringing in further assistance by aircraft carrier. Even if its motivations are as much political as they are humanitarian, its services are invaluable in putting Tacloban and the region on the road to recovery.


Yet however unprecedented the damage may be, Haiyan is just the latest and likely worst in an upward trend of deadly typhoons, the third cyclone to cause over a thousand deaths in the country in the past three years. The majority of the deadliest and costliest typhoons in the Philippines’ history have taken place in the past decade. With increasingly powerful storms draining resources each year, the country finds itself scrambling to protect against future typhoons while still recovering from the last. And the Philippines, which is responsible for less than half of one percent of global carbon emissions, is effectively powerless to slow the global warming contributing to the ever-increasing likelihood of more devastating storms like Haiyan.


If the United States wants to help the Philippines in the long run — whether out of altruism or desire to improve its global image — it must change its ways. Second only to China in greenhouse gas emissions, the United States has the power to reverse global warming that smaller and more storm-vulnerable nations lack. Yet its record here is abysmal, not least exhibited by its repeated refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the emissions reduction guidelines that are central to the United Nations’ ongoing climate talks.

As the United States continues to act abroad, it is in the unique position of being able to leave the largest long-term impact by making changes at home. And the global warming that continues to wreak havoc on the Philippines is the same global warming that has already begun to affect us. Before long, the United States will have to change to survive.