Guest Column: Worst effects of climate change seen in Philippine typhoon

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

On Monday, the United Nations opened its 19th Framework Convention on Climate Change in Warsaw, Poland. Given the unimaginable devastation wrought on the Philippines three days earlier by Typhoon Haiyan, the remarks of the country’s delegate had a special resonance.

“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,” said Naderev “Yeb” Sano. “I dare you to go to the islands of the Pacific, the islands of the Caribbean and the islands of the Indian Ocean and see the impacts of rising sea levels; to the mountainous regions of the Himalayas and the Andes to see communities confronting glacial floods; to the Arctic where communities grapple with the fast dwindling polar ice caps; to the large deltas of the Mekong, the Ganges, the Amazon and the Nile where lives and livelihoods are drowned; to the hills of Central America that confront similar monstrous hurricanes; to the vast savannas of Africa where climate change has likewise become a matter of life and death as food and water become scarce.”

That this was the 19th such annual event, and it’s still about the “framework” of an agreement, suggests that Sano should not hold his breath.

No nation on earth has more to fear from its climate than the Philippines, an archipelago of 7,100 islands and 98 million souls. The climate has always wrought havoc there. Now it’s getting worse.

Storms have the entire Pacific Ocean to draw strength from. The Philippines sit astride shifting tectonic plates that have spawned 13 magnitude-6.0 or higher earthquakes since 2001. The latest was a magnitude-7.2 quake that struck the city of Bohol just four weeks ago and killed 222 people.

Since 2002, the Philippines have recorded 184 natural disasters, including an average of six typhoons (as hurricanes are known in the Pacific) each year. The storms are becoming more frequent and more intense; this one came 10 days after the traditional end of the typhoon season. Haiyan ­— known as Yolanda in the Philippines — was the 30th named storm of the 2013 Pacific season and the second Category 5 (winds in excess of 150 miles an hour) to hit the Philippines in the last 11 months.

Haiyan/Yolanda is the most powerful typhoon ever to hit land.

It did so at Tacloban, a port city of 200,000 and the capital of Leyte Province. Residents had been warned of the wind, but the shocking 19-foot storm surge may have swept thousands out to sea. Estimates of the dead range between 1,200 and 10,000. Thousands of people have simply disappeared.

The question here, 8,300 miles from Tacloban City, is “So what?”

We can write checks and should, but we’ve got our own natural disasters — heat, flood, droughts, tornadoes and (knock on wood) the New Madrid Fault. We’ve got earthquakes in our hemisphere (Haiti 2010) that haven’t been cleaned up yet.

To the extent most of us know of Leyte at all, it’s that it’s where Gen. Douglas MacArthur waded ashore (twice, at Palo, not far from Tacloban, the second time for the cameras) when he fulfilled his “I shall return” promise during World War II. The last great naval battle in history was fought off these shores in 1944, when the kamikazes first flew.

Since then, benign neglect and a succession of corrupt governments didn’t build the infrastructure that might have helped mitigate the effect of Haiyan. Now climate disasters are coming so fast the Philippines can’t catch up and maybe not the rest of us, either. If we’re wise, the Philippines will be the canary in the global coal mine.

This is where the worst effects of global warming are being felt first. Without serious, sustained attention and the kind of sacrifices in lifestyle that few nations seem prepared to make, every coast will feel what the coasts of the Philippines felt. Perhaps not as violently, but every bit as surely.