Disaster in Philippines Exposes Structural Problems in Relief Effort

Sean Para, Columnist

The typhoon that decimated the central Philippines last week is but the newest and most urgent reminder about the growing realities global society will have to confront in the face of climate change. At the time of publication, more than 2,300 people have been confirmed dead due to Typhoon Haiyan, with numbers expected to rise, and millions more are in need of aid. The city of Tacloban, once thriving, has been nearly destroyed and has fallen into a state of anarchy.


While this situation is tragic on an immediate level, it highlights a crucial and very visible aspect of climate change that the global community will have to deal with at an increasingly frequent and extreme level: the rising occurrence of natural disasters. If the current situation in the Philippines is any indication of what is to come, natural disasters and how to respond to them will become a key global issue.


The Philippine government has practically abandoned many who have lost their homes and loved ones in the more adversely affected areas, focusing on maintaining law and order rather than distributing aid. The United States has commenced a humanitarian mission in the region, sending an aircraft carrier to help victims and also taking over some operational control of Tacloban’s damaged airport. The response, however, has not been nearly adequate to ease the suffering of millions and points to increasing troubles responding to humanitarian crises in the future.


Even the wealthiest governments have inadequate resources to deal with natural catastrophes. The U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina is a glaring reminder of this sad truth. Aid workers were unable to reach those in need; civil government failed to protect the inhabitants of New Orleans before, during and after the hurricane. The failure left a traumatic scar on the national consciousness and will always remain an example of our government’s inability to perform its basic duties. The Filipino response to the typhoon is predictable in light of the American example.


The real problem here is climate change; natural disasters cause more destruction than any modern government can reasonably cope with. Yet, as has been conclusively shown by scientists, climate change is a problem created by global society and its dependence on hydrocarbons. Therefore, the only way to mitigate the effects of increasingly frequent natural disasters is to work against climate change and prevent greenhouse gas emissions created by transportation, power production and many other intrinsic aspects of our economy.


Despite these incontrovertible truths, the international community — particularly the United States and other major growing greenhouse gas emitters like China and India — has not done nearly enough to curb emissions. The reasons for this are clear enough: It is cheaper for major corporations to pretend climate change is not a growing problem caused by people rather than the environment. This needs to stop. New laws must be enacted to reduce emissions and subsidize clean energy instead of fossil fuels.

It is probably already too late to prevent increasingly severe climate change and the natural disasters it results in, but we must try. If we do not, this issue should still be brought to the fore. The international community needs to focus more on how to deal with these disasters when they occur.