Disaster, Denial, and Development: Making Sense of Climate Change and Typhoon Haiyan

Weeks after the landfall of Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippines still face the turmoil of reconstruction after what was possibly the strongest storm ever to make landfall in recorded human history.

Image courtesy of Roi European Commission, © 2013, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of European Commission, © 2013, some rights reserved.

The death toll continues to rise from 5,000 to the expected 10,000 with thousands more injured and over 600,000 displaced from their communities. The storm has affected about 11 million people in 41 provinces according to UN estimates, as hundreds of thousands face a crisis in managing food supplies and a lack of clean water, as the unprecedented scale of the storm undermined disaster relief plans. The exact death toll may never be known, and the real cost of the disaster unquantifiable in the considerable social costs that cannot be effectively negated through humanitarian aid.

In addressing the historically unprecedented intensity of the storm, Philippines Representative to the UN Climate Change Venue Yeb Sano controversially attributed the magnitude of the storm to the effects of climate change, as he stated: “Typhoons such as Haiyan and its impacts represent a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to procrastinate on climate action. Warsaw must deliver on enhancing ambition and should muster the political will to address climate change.”

Representative Sano’s statement was met with criticism as it remains unclear the extent to which the storm was directly impacted by climate change. Even without current evidence, however, his message does not lack validity.

In their 2007 climate change assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicated that that future tropical cyclones would likely increase in intensity during the 21st century. Scientists disagree about the impact of climate change when applied to different natural disasters, though general consensus acknowledges the escalation of intensity, especially in the North Atlantic region. The amplified devastation of Hurricane Sandy on the American mid-Atlantic coast has been attributed to rising sea levels that worsen flooding.

While some claims surrounding Haiyan remain unverified, the structural damages of the storm are already apparent.

The Philippine’s’ recent economic struggles, have long been attributed to environmental factors exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Officials claim that natural disasters have hindered development in the transition from an economy based on agriculture to an industrialised system focused on services and manufacturing,

In a public statement, the Philippine Consul General to Canada Junever Mahilum-West addressed this vulnerability: “No one has accounted for the total destruction or loss of life we’ve experienced through typhoons,” she stated, “without these natural disasters, we would be an industrial economy by now; we are an outward-looking economy… we are in a very vulnerable part of the world, and one of the most vulnerable to climate change.”

With complete decimation of infrastructure across many of the islands, the Filipino economy will face myriad setbacks with the costs of reconstruction. While the financial and industrial hub in Manila remains relatively unscathed, investor confidence levels have fallen, and tourism revenues have fallen considerably. While generous humanitarian aid has poured in from Europe and the United States, both China and Singapore, regional allies and large investors, only committed $100,000 and $160,000, respectively. These paltry contributions from the Philippines’ wealthy and influential neighbors are not promising of future economic support, which could indicate a loss of capital detrimental to future development.

While East Asian regionalism might be failing in this catastrophe, support from international organizations and foreign governments has been covering the primacy costs of reconstruction; a project that will cost at least $5.8 billion to repair houses, schools, roads and bridges. Economic planning secretary Arsenio Balisacan estimates that the total costs of the crisis could reach up to $250 billion; a staggering sum to be financed externally.

It is possible that the massive waves of Haiyan could have been just as destructive without the effects of climate change, though this does not negate the massive threat that climate change poses to the developing world in the future. The Philippines are both geographically and economically vulnerable, as sea levels have been rising by more than three times the global average for the last 18 years. As rising sea-levels and storms continue to threaten this region and other parts of the world, climate change will likely catalyse another humanitarian crisis.

And yet the international community remains paralysed when it comes to enacting efficient policies to combat climate change.

On the 20th of November, the G77 and China bloc of 132 developing countries walked out of the UN climate talks in Warsaw to express their frustration with the international failures to address the ‘losses and damages’ cause by climate change and crises like Typhoon Haiyan. If the most powerful countries refuse to limit carbon emissions, the LDCs argued, then they should be held accountable for disaster relief.

Through the generous donations made by many international organisation and developed countries, the global community has recognised a special type of social responsibility to help developing countries affected by these environmental issues. The primacy of human security and progress is amplified by this abundance of promised aid money.

If human security and socio-economic development can attract massive amounts of public attention, can these sentiments of humanitarian ethics be transferred into pressure for real progress on climate change? It may be overly idealistic to believe it possible, but harnessing international pressure to instate functioning emissions policies now could be exponentially more efficient than waiting to pay out post-hoc disaster relief in the decades to come.

One Reply to “Disaster, Denial, and Development: Making Sense of Climate Change and Typhoon Haiyan”

  1. Everyone would agree that typhoon Haiyan was one of the worst disasters of modern history and had unprecedented loss of life and property damage. But to expect that this would somehow initiate a move to solve climate change is naive.

    Demographics have left no doubt that the US Social Security system is doomed to fail in the 2020’s, and even a few years ago a relatively minor fix might have saved it, but there has not been the political will to do anything. In addition, the entitlements currently enacted are clearly destined to bankrupt the US and yet the politicians avoid any action to fix the problem.

    Given the lack of action on these problems where there is little controversy, Climate Control has little chance of any real attention. There is far from universal agreement of the cause and effect which the author alludes to. But even with indisputable data as proof, it is unlikely that politicians will be able to address and fix this problem. Whenever there are economic interests involved, satisfactory social solutions are rarely easily attainable.

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