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Typhoon Haiyan should spur climate change action
The Philippines ranked third among countries hit most frequently by hazards of nature, yet that experience could prepare few for the fury of super typhoon Haiyan. Even more ominous than the untold death and destruction is the prospect that these “once-in-a-lifetime” floods, storms as well as droughts and heat waves are becoming routine.
But the collective response still sees these events as one-off acts of nature, fostering a silence on their likely link to climate change. Meanwhile, mounting scientific evidence suggests their connection to also acts of man. That is, the growing concentration of carbon emissions in the atmosphere is associated increasingly with weather extremes.
Intensity is one of three ingredients that can turn a natural hazard into a disaster. With a wind speed twice that of a jetliner at take-off, typhoon Haiyan is thought to be the strongest tropical storm in recorded history. The second factor is people’s exposure to hazards, as demonstrated by the disproportionate impacts on vulnerable populations during Europe’s increasingly deadly heatwaves. Third is the capacity to confront disasters: a 1970 cyclone in Bangladesh took 300,000 lives, yet with early warning, coastal management, the death toll of an even stronger cyclone in 2007 was 4,000.
With rising incomes, better communication, and technology, people’s ability to withstand natural hazards has improved. At the same time, burgeoning populations are also increasingly locating in harm’s way and becoming highly exposed to the risks. And most striking, the frequency of extreme hazards is increasing.
The response to disasters depends significantly on which view one holds – purely acts of nature or acts of people as well? In the first, relief and rehabilitation take centre stage. In the second, prevention – importantly climate – also assumes importance. Climate adaptation that locates people out of harm’s way, for example, away from low-lying coastlines or flood-prone urban areas, is needed. So is climate mitigation, which would shift economies onto a low carbon path.
The crucial question is why, despite our scientific knowledge, climate action lags.
The main reason is the fear that climate action would slow economic growth. Many still see climate investment as a cost to growth and are yet to recognise that lack of action is what would stall growth. Even when they detect a link, the impact of delay is seen to occur only in the distant future or to affect mostly others. But imagine if it were understood that climate inaction would actually worsen growth prospects for countries. The response to the increasing frequency of these extreme hazards would surely be urgent.
Ironically, the rising frequency might just spur needed action. Crises are known to spur change as the Great London Smog in 1952 led the United Kingdom to create the first Clean Air Act in 1956. A fire on Ohio’s once polluted Cuyahoga River is credited for getting the environmental movement of the ground in the United States in the late 1960s. And the tragic mercury poisoning around the same time in Minamata, Japan provoked environmental legislation.
It is no longer far-fetched to think that a hurricane as destructive as Sandy in 2012, with estimated damage of $68 billion, could strike twice in the Atlantic hurricane season. Or that southeast Asia could see two or three events of the magnitude of the severe flooding of 2011 monsoon season that cost 13% of Thailand’s GDP and disrupted regional and global economic supply chains.
Such unfortunate prospects could indeed change the climate response. Economists could help hasten such a reaction by building into their calculus the role of natural assets and climate impacts in shaping lives and livelihoods. Factoring this realisation into the influential growth scenarios could make a big difference to policymaking.
Natural disasters illustrate tangibly just how much climate change can set back growth, stressing the economic imperative of preventive measures. One estimate of the cost of Haiyan is 5% of economic output in the Philippines.
Rather than viewing extreme floods, storms, droughts and heat waves as occasional disruptions, we need to see them as increasingly frequent occurrences, rooted partly in human action. Beyond relief and reconstruction, climate adaptation and mitigation are urgently called for.