Features > Could climate change have caused Haiyan?

14 November 2013 | by Elena Curti

Could climate change have caused Haiyan?

Yeb Sano had a simple message for fellow participants at a United Nations summit three days after Typhoon Haiyan struck his home in the central Philippines, writes Elena Curti.

“To anyone who continues to deny the reality that is climate change, I dare you to get off your ivory tower and away from the comfort of your armchair,” he told them.

Mr Sano, the head of the Philippines’ delegation at UN climate talks in Warsaw, said he would not eat until the conference made “meaningful” progress. He was speaking on Monday at the opening of the Conference of the Parties (Cop), just after learning that his family had survived the storm.

“In solidarity with my countrymen who are struggling to find food back home, I will now commence a voluntary fasting for the climate; this means I will voluntarily refrain from eating food during this Cop, until a meaningful outcome is in sight.

“What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness, the climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness right here in Warsaw,” he said and added that the link between climate change and extreme weather had become clearer.

“The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report on climate change and extreme events underscored the risks associated with changes in the patterns as well as frequency of extreme weather events. Science tells us that, simply, climate change will mean more intense tropical storms. As the Earth warms up, that would include the oceans. The energy that is stored in the waters off the Philippines will increase the intensity of typhoons and the trend we now see is that more destructive storms will be the new norm.”

Fr Seán McDonagh SSC, a Columban priest and an authority on climate change who worked in the Philippines for more 20 years, says Mr Sano is right. He points out that the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report in 2007 stated that, between 1961 and 2003, the average temperature of the upper 700 metres of the oceans increased by 0.2 degrees Celsius as a result of climate change.

“This increases the available energy for short-term storms such as hurricanes or typhoons. While the warming of the oceans may not increase the frequency of these storms, it does increase the storm’s intensity, as is clear from Typhoons Bopha and Haiyan. Television pictures from Tacloban show, in graphic detail, the appalling consequences for people and the environment of failing to take swift action to curb greenhouse gas emissions,”  he said.

It is the second successive year that the Cop UN conference has taken place just after devastating typhoons in the Philippines. In 2012, one week before Cop 18 in Doha, Typhoon Bopha crashed into the province of Davao Oriental. In its journey across north-west Mindanao, it killed almost 2,000 people and destroyed homes, businesses and churches.

In a report entitled “What Have We Done?”, published on 16 October, Cafod said climate change was producing more and more devastating, extreme weather events as well as slower, subtle shifts in seasons and weather. The report cited Typhoon Washi in 2011, which killed 1,268 people and affected nearly 100,000 people across 30 villages in the Philippines, as an example.

“Events such as these are increasing in number and severity due to climate change, and people in poor communities lack the resources and infrastructure to prepare in advance or recover sufficiently from such shocks,” said the report.

Asked whether Cafod was also linking Typhoon Haiyan with climate change, the agency’s director of advocacy and communications, Neil Thorns, said: “While scientists are not directly attributing Haiyan to climate change, all the signs point to tropical cyclones and events such as this intensifying, and that is backed by the experience of our local partners who are dealing with more extreme weather events year on year.”

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