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Typhoon Haiyan exposes different perspectives on a warming planet

By Eric Campbell, Tuesday November 26, 2013 - 14:12 EDT
ABC image
Typhoon Haiyan damage on Bantayan island in the Philippines on November 18. - ABC

In the Philippines, people who link natural disasters with climate change are treated rather differently from Australia.

Four days after Typhoon Haiyan swept across the archipelago, killing thousands and leaving millions homeless, the chief Filipino delegate to the UN Climate Change Conference in Warsaw, .

"Mr President, I speak for my delegation, but I speak for the countless people who will no longer be able to speak for themselves after perishing from the storm," he told the conference hall.

"We can take drastic action now to ensure that we prevent a future where super typhoons become a way of life."



He broke down and cried as he spoke, explaining that his relatives were still missing in the worst-hit city of Tacloban.

Unlike Australians who linked recent bushfires to global warming, Mr Sano was not immediately denounced as "alarmist" and "an enemy of reason".

Newspaper columnists did not accuse him of "politicising" the tragedy. Editorials did not berate him for "insulting" the brave men and women still trying to rescue victims. Tabloid headlines did not label him a "Mean Green".



The government didn't even tell the UN to "butt out" of its internal affairs. Instead, a nation cried with him.

In the nine days I have just spent in the Philippines disaster zone, it was remarkable to see how different the perceptions are about the likely consequences of a warming planet.

It is not just the local media that consistently report mainstream science as, well, mainstream science, rather than alarmist conspiracy.

Ordinary people genuinely fear that the climate is changing and they're worried about what it means for their children.

In fact, none of the many storm survivors I met was simply alarmed by climate change. They were actually terrified of the prospect of more storms like Haiyan.

We spent most of our shoot on a ravaged island called Bantayan, just off the northern coast of the central province of Cebu.

It's one of about 7,000 islands in the Philippine archipelago, of which about 2,000 are inhabited. For the people who live there, climate change isn't an academic debate. They see it as a question of survival.

"Climate change affects us directly because we are surrounded by water," a local businessman, Vince Escario, told me.

"The sea defines who we are. If you have storms like this becoming more and more frequent, we might as well vacate and look for a much better place on the Earth, because certainly there won't be any future to look forward to."



'Shattered lives, shattered dreams'

Bantayan has been a fishing community since the 16th century, when the Spaniards named it Madre de Los Pescados, Mother of the Fishes. But fisherman told us it was getting ever harder to survive. The weather was increasingly unpredictable and whole species were disappearing.

None of that can be blamed directly on climate change, of course. The more obvious culprits are commercial boats engaging in over-fishing. But however bad things are now, there is a sense climate change will make them worse.

And for many on Bantayan, Typhoon Haiyan is already the end game. Businesses took out heavy loans after the last major typhoon hit two years. Nobody was expecting an even stronger typhoon so soon. Perhaps half the island's industry has been wiped out, along with its hotels, its commercial centre and most of the houses.

"This is the first time that we've had such a terrible typhoon as this", the former Governor of Cebu, Gwen Garcia told me as we drove round the dirt roads, dodging felled trees and roofs and even entire walls blown about by the strongest wind ever recorded.

"The saddest thing is, people have no shelter. Shattered lives. Shattered dreams."

Not a single dwelling was completely intact. Ninety per cent of houses were partially or completely destroyed. Thousands were sleeping under open sky or loose plastic, dreading the next rain.

Yet Bantayan was actually lucky. It is surrounded by tidal flats, and the typhoon hit at low tide when the sea was hundreds of metres from shore. The mud and sand stopped the giant sea surge that killed thousands in cities like Tacloban. The death toll here was 21.

"It could have wiped out the entire island," Vince Escario said. "If the tide was high at the time, not a single building would be seen today and not a single soul would be on this island now."



Fewer, more severe storms expected

So how likely is it that a tropical storm like Haiyan will strike again? And how can anyone be certain that climate change is to blame?

Most climate scientists I have spoken to over the years avoid words like "certain". As opposed to being "alarmist", I have always found them to be cautious and genuinely sceptical.

Scepticism, in its true meaning, is questioning all claims and opinions before forming tentative conclusions from hard evidence. I have found most so-called climate "sceptics" to be anything but, rejecting any evidence that suggests there is a problem and unquestioningly accepting any claims that match their pre-existing opinions.

While I was in the Philippines, our Washington producer Dee Porter tracked down one of the world's leading experts on super storms, Professor Adam Sobel, an atmospheric scientist at New York‚??s Columbia University. We wanted to be sure any generalisations we wrote about climate change were correct.



Professor Sobel is writing a book on Hurricane Sandy, the giant storm that struck his home town of New York last year, flooding parts of Manhattan. I am going to risk being labelled a biased-green-left-alarmist and suggest that he has more credibility on climate change than any Australian shock jock or newspaper columnist.

His essential thesis - shared by almost all scientists - is that global warming may reduce the number of tropical storms but those that do occur are likely to be more severe. So while a typhoon, or cyclone as powerful as Haiyan is unprecedented, it is likely to become more frequent. It is impossible to say when, but our children and grandchildren may find out.

What I found most interesting was the frustration he and other scientists feel in trying to get this message across.

"We're often asked 'is global warming responsible for this storm?' And we have a hard time getting the answer right, because there's two different answers for it," he said.

"In the narrow sense, you have to say, no, global warming didn't cause this storm, because we know it could have happened anyway, because we know we can't attribute any one storm to climate change and because, in particular in the case of tropical cyclones, we don't yet detect clear trends in the recent historical past in tropical cyclone frequency or intensity.



"At the same time, we know climate change is happening. We know that the science tells us tropical cyclones should get more powerful. And so we know when we see an event like this that our science really does tell us it's the type of event for which our risk will increase in the future."

Professor Sobel says climate scientists face a difficult balancing act when discussing extreme weather events and their probable causes, as well as the likelihood they will occur again.

"When we're asked 'did climate change cause Haiyan?' we can't say yes. But if we just talk about the uncertainties then we're not talking about the more important underlying truth, which is that climate change is a serious problem."

"And so I think those of us in the field who are talking to the media and to the public have to learn how to balance those things; to explain what the uncertainties are, but at the same time not let discussion of the uncertainties from telling the most important truth, which is that we need to do more than we're doing now to reduce climate change and its impact."

Professor Sobel added that if we wait for the signs to be unequivocal, so that even "sceptics" accept it, it is going to be too late to do anything about it.

I left the Philippines with a sinking feeling that I had just glimpsed the future.



Watch Philippines ‚?? The Super Storm on Foreign Correspondent at 8:00pm on ABC1.


- ABC

© ABC 2013

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