As the devastation of hurricane Haiyan in the Philippines crystallizes, humans around the world do what they’ve been doing as long as there has been ways to communicate natural disasters: we reach out, we send aid, we seek to help the people and the land that has been destroyed by this powerful storm. But in recent years, you may well have noticed a new thread in the conversation around natural disaster response: linking these kinds of events to climate change.
As soon as the hurricane hit, many organizations were quick to make the link between this intense typhoon and climate. Front and center on 350.org’s site is a picture of the destruction, captioned “Typhoon Haiyan. This is #ClimateReality.” Staff of the Climate Reality group are calling Haiyan “a climate crime.” And Philippino diplomat Nardev Sano made an impassioned appeal at the Warsaw climate talks, and has launched a hunger strike, over the link between his country’s devastation by the typhoon and climate change.
To me, this is a case where public relations is to some extent getting out in front of climate science, but the central message is still relevant, and I will explain why. Most of the climate scientists that are looking at the link between tropical storms and climate change are in agreement that linking the existence of any given storm to climate change is a very difficult thing to do. The science of climate change and severe storm events is “still in its infancy,” says Oxford Professor Myles Allen, a member of the IPCC and author of the most recent IPCC climate report (see Action 92). So far, the evaluation of tropical storm data has not suggested a clear recent increase in frequency that would indicate a link to atmospheric changes. What the IPCC has been willing to put forward is that it is quite likely that the monsoon season will increase in duration over the coming century, as ocean temperatures rise and conditions facilitating monsoons extends further across the calendar; and that extreme precipitation events are likely to become even more intense- and more frequent – over the coming century. The issue of storm intensity increasing, severe storms getting even more severe- is one that has substantial consensus in the scientific community. Its one that has a fairly simple physical explanation at its base- sea surface temperatures are warmer, more evaporation occurs at these warmer temperatures, and these factors yield the potential for both greater precipitation and greater energy imparted to the storms that do form.
So while whether or not we can link typhoon Haiyan, or any given specific storm event, explicitly to recent climatological changes is at this point, open for debate. But the fact that these storms are quite likely becoming more intense and the conditions which give rise to these storms are likely to last longer as a result of climate change, gives validity to the statement that climate change is and increasingly will be playing a role in tropical storm intensity and driving even greater devastation in the wake of these storms. My actions in response to typhoon Haiyan were therefore twofold: quickly donate funds to the rescue missions that are trying to help the Philippines in the aftermath of the storm; and thanking Nadarev Sano for bringing attention to the issue of climate change and severe weather, and risking his own health to do so.