When Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda slammed into the Philippines last weekend it brought human tragedy and devastation on a scale that’s sadly becoming all too familiar, whether from tsunami or typhoons. The death toll is heading for 10,000 and more, making it the most damaging storm in the country’s history. This unmissable speech by Yeb Saño, the Philippines Climate Change Commissioner at the UN’s climate conference in Warsaw — in which he promises to fast until the UN talks face up to the need for action, makes the inevitable link between climate change and the protection of vulnerable populations — the people in the firing line.
The Philippines define that firing line — they experience more tropical storms than any other country on the planet. Tropical storms brew in the warm waters of the western Pacific, turn into typhoons and pummel the islands. In the last year alone they have experienced three record-breaking multi-billion dollar weather disasters. In December 2012 Typhoon Bopha killed up to 2,000 people and caused US$1.7 billion in damage. In August this year, flooding from the rains associated with Tropical Storm Trami killed 18 people and caused $2.2 billion of damage. Haiyan looks certain to eclipse those numbers in the most tragic manner. The images emerging from the country are appalling, but are they the shape of things to come?
The answer, all too sadly, is almost certainly yes. To use the broadest of brushes, if we carry on adding energy to the climate system — which is what our addition of greenhouse gases achieves — then we can expect the weather to become more energetic. Heavier rain, stronger winds, and if you live in the tropics, more intense tropical storms. The detail, as always in climate matters, is more complex (and fascinating), and our best modelling is ambiguous about the prospects for tropical storms, typhoons and hurricanes in a warming world. At the very least, they are expected to become more intense, because warming oceans feed energy into storms, and the warmer the water becomes, the bigger the storms can be. In this case a vast pool of warm water provided a dagger of fuel pointing at Tacloban, as the maps at this post by Scienceblogger Greg Laden demonstrate all too clearly.
As Yeb Saño (he was a star last year, as well) puts it, we need “an emergency climate pathway”. We need to start making steep cuts in carbon emissions with an aim to capping atmospheric greenhouse gases at the lowest possible level. To do anything less is to load the guns of the firing squad and issue the command to fire.