Tacloban and New York

Typhoon Haiyan is a glimpse of what a densely populated world colliding with a radically changing climate system could look like.

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Tacloban City, November 11 (Photo: Noel Celis/AFP - Getty)
Tacloban City, November 11 (Photo: Noel Celis/AFP – Getty)

The horrific damage caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines has special, painful resonance in New York, where we’re just looking back at the one year mark from Hurricane Sandy. But Haiyan dwarfed Sandy in terms of lethal impact and in terms of power:

Scientists at the U.S. Navy/Air Force’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center infer that Haiyan produced sustained wind speeds of around 190 or 195 mph at its peak. John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist at Texas A&M University, says gusts blew up to 230 mph, which is as fast as a speeding race car. (NPR)

Tacloban, a city of 220,000, was knocked flat. Getting supplies into the relief zone may now be the biggest challenge, as there are few working vehicles to distribute goods. According to the New York Times, the mayor of Tacloban is urging residents to leave the city because of shortages of food and water, and because of an increasingly chaotic situation on the ground.

The storm hit just as the annual UN climate conference, COP19, began this week in Warsaw, leading to an emotional speech on Monday by the climate negotiator from the Philippines:

If you’d like to support the rescue effort in the Philippines, the New York Times has compiled a list of relief organizations.

Beyond sending support, hoping for the well-being of the people in the affected areas and their relatives (there are four million Filipinos in the United States), and acknowledging the resonance with all coastal cities, it’s important to step back and assess what meaning Typhoon Haiyan may have beyond the 24 hour news cycle, which will soon move on again.

What does a storm like this — unusually big even for the Philippines, where typhoons are common — mean in terms of a warming climate? What steps would the world take even if this storm could be shown to be influenced by added heat in the climate system, as a result from our rising carbon emissions?

[pullquote align=”right”]A glimpse of what a densely populated world colliding with a radically changing climate system could look like.[/pullquote]

Those questions are even more prominent because the typhoon hit land just as the United Nations nineteenth “Conference of the Parties” negotiating session on climate change, or COP19, began. The opening day of the conference turned personal when the representative of the Philippines, Yeb Saño, spoke about the unfolding calamity in his country (and in fact, in his own hometown). Saño began a fast in support of fellow Filipinos who are without food after the storm, and as a way to urge a global agreement on carbon emissions, which he describes as the only way to avert far greater catastrophes in the future.

Heat waves and sea level rise are two effects that are unequivocally associated with a warming world. On the other hand, the impact of more energy in the oceans and atmosphere is not yet fully understood in terms of the frequency or size of storms like Typhoon Haiyan. But researchers lean to the view that more energy in the system results in bigger storms. Both the Guardian and NPR have followed that question, and a piece in New York Times about the climate conference included these comments:

“The data suggests that things like this will be more frequent with global warming,” said James P. Kossin, an atmospheric scientist at the National Climatic Data Center.

[Kerry Emanuel, atmospheric scientist at MIT] said that as the planet warms because of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases, the difference between sea and air temperatures increases. It is this difference that fuels these kinds of cyclonic storms.

“As you warm the climate, you basically raise the speed limit on hurricanes”

Not much is expected out of COP19, but perhaps the impact of the storm will jar the unwieldy negotiating system forward. The typhoon also may spur a new response to the real challenge of negotiating on climate while the world is dependent on fossil fuels for energy: wealthy countries produce the CO2, while poor countries will feel the brunt of the effects most harshly. As pointed out in the New York Times, the average Filipino produces less than a ton of CO2 per year (making an easy fit into the 5000 pound lifestyle through poverty, by American standards). The average American produces more than seventeen tons of CO2. A complete list of nations by per capita CO2 emissions is available on Wikipedia. Switzerland comes in at around five tons, so an affluent Western lifestyle can be compatible with a much lower rate of emissions.

[pullquote align=”left”]Wealthy countries produce the CO2, poor countries feel the effects.[/pullquote]

Typhoon Haiyan is a glimpse of what a densely populated world colliding with a radically changing climate system could look like. So maybe the longer term questions for a New Yorker, sparked by this year’s big storm, are: why would Americans want to change so drastically? The 5000 pound life represents a complete reset of one’s aspirations, or an entire, rapid rebuilding of our infrastructure, or both. And, how should we be prepared if we don’t find the will or the way to persuade each other to make the kinds of big steps that are involved in an adequate response? In a point blank talk from this June, Dan Schrag, the director of the Harvard University Center on the Environment, gives a sense of how big the challenge is, and how quickly we need to act — both to prepare, and to work to prevent the worst outcomes from a ‘business as usual’ emissions pathway. We’ll look at other dimensions of this puzzle in future posts.