Typhoon Haiyan: a harbinger of tomorrow’s climate
The Eastern Visayas region in the Philippines is frequently in the pathway of typhoons, as it fronts the Pacific Ocean. Residents of Tacloban City, the region’s capital, have grown accustomed to typhoon warnings, school and work suspensions and debris strewn in the streets as a consequence of typhoon strikes.
In what should have been just another typhoon passing through on November 8, 2013, Tacloban residents found themselves in a maelstrom of storm surges, two-storey-high raging floodwaters, and strong winds of up to 380km/h.
In its aftermath, Typhoon Haiyan, called Super Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines, left a massive trail of death and destruction affecting more than 170 municipalities and cities in the central Philippines. The United Nations Office for Coordination and Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) estimated that 13 million Filipinos were affected by the typhoon. Of that number, 3 million were displaced.
Philippine government data placed the death toll at 6,300. But to this day, Haiyan survivors believe the death count was higher, as the typhoon barreled into coastal and inland communities spanning the islands of Eastern Samar, Leyte, Cebu, Panay and Palawan.
The government pegged the cost of short-term and strategic recovery and rehabilitation at US$7 billion, a significant sum in relation to the country’s gross domestic product. The government secured loans from multilateral development banks amounting to more than $2 billion.
But five years since Haiyan, rehabilitation along the typhoon corridor has yet to be completed.
The story was supposed to end there. But the affected communities and people’s movements are fighting to write a different ending – one that looks to rich countries to own up to their responsibility for the climate crisis that has spawned extreme weather events such as Yolanda, and provide the necessary support for poor countries such as the Philippines as they address climate-change-induced disasters and the ensuing task of rebuilding and building communities.
Haiyan, the strongest typhoon to make landfall in the Philippines in recent recorded history, is symptomatic of a destabilized climate system
Haiyan, the strongest typhoon to make landfall in the Philippines in recent recorded history, is symptomatic of a destabilized climate system. What has triggered this?
The development path taken by rich countries of the so-called Global North was defined by extensive and excessive burning of fossil-fuels. The result has been excessive concentrations of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. This has triggered extreme weather events and slow onset impacts, which are most felt by poor countries like the Philippines. Hence, Haiyan.
But Haiyan is not an aberration in the climate system. It is the new normal. Just days ago, Japan was hit by yet another super typhoon – Typhoon Jebi, causing serious infrastructure destruction and, in some areas, storm surges.
This is where the climate negotiations among the world governments who are signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) play a significant role in ensuring that climate-change-vulnerable countries have the wherewithal to address the impacts.
Sadly, almost three years since the Paris Agreement, we are nowhere close to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions at levels that would arrest global temperature rises at an aspirational target of 1.5 degrees Celsius beyond pre-industrial levels. The countries’ nationally determined contributions (NDC), a mechanism that reflects the individual commitments of parties to the UNFCCC in mitigating climate change, taken all together will condemn the world to a global average temperature increase of 4 to 6 degrees by the end of the century.
The commitments for climate finance have fallen short of the actual requirements for our survival.
Haiyan happened at a time when the global average temperature had risen by only 0.87 degree from pre-industrial levels. Under a 4-degree scenario, it is not far-fetched to imagine super typhoons the magnitude and strength of which would be three to four times that of Haiyan. In some parts of the globe such as Africa, it would mean a drastic increase in heat index. Simply stated, Africa will burn.
In some countries in Southeast Asia as well as in the Pacific, islands will be submerged.
That is why it makes no sense for governments to debate timetables for action devoid of scientific basis and how much finance is needed, when the worst is already happening and the destruction is exceeding the monetary commitments for climate finance.
At a hearing parallel to the United Nations climate conference held in Bangkok during the past week, groups advanced their demands for world governments to address climate change. This includes energy transformation – one that would transition from a high-carbon economy to a post-carbon setup – climate finance for the Global South, reparations for economic, social and environmental losses suffered by poor countries and the broader call for climate justice, making rich countries pay their fair share of the burden to combat climate change.
At the next Conference of Parties to the Climate Convention (COP 24), to be held in Poland in December, we will remind the government delegations to remember Haiyan. Unless ambitious emission cuts are undertaken, unless realistic and adequate climate finances are made available to poor countries, unless energy systems are transformed and a just transition is included on the agenda and binding commitments are arrived at, our own governments will have condemned us to perdition. They will have signed us up for more Haiyans.