Typhoon Haiyan highlights global cost of climate change

Philippines hopes disaster will focus attention of industrialized world, but US resists direct liability

Destruction caused by Typhoon Haiyan.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

As the Philippine government struggles to deal with the humanitarian crisis caused by Typhoon Haiyan, it has already begun to look at the causes of the storm and what it can do to prevent such widespread destruction in the future.

But one of the major factors in the future of extreme weather and therefore one of the main factors in the future of the Philippines is almost entirely out of the country’s control.

Most climate scientists agree that increasing global temperatures will cause more-intense storms in the future. And while it’s hard to pinpoint the causes of any one storm, many agree that there will be more Haiyan-strength storms to come because of climate change.

That has put the Philippines and other developing nations in a bind. While poor countries often bear the brunt of climate change’s effects, their lackluster economies prevent them from funding infrastructure and education, which could help mitigate the damage of disasters like Haiyan.

Now many in the Philippines, as well as environmental advocates and climate experts, are pushing for affluent countries, including the United States, to pay to help lessen the impact of climate change across the globe. They say that industrialized nations should not only foot the bill because they can but also because they are largely responsible for climate change.

As governments in industrialized countries struggle to pay their own bills, however, there’s no clear path to fund the amount of climate-change infrastructure and education needed to protect countries like the Philippines before another extreme storm strikes.

But that hasn’t stopped some in the Philippines from trying to persuade the world to forge ahead.

Earlier this week, at the start of a two-week U.N. conference in Warsaw, Poland, on climate change, the envoy for the Philippines made an emotional appeal for action.

Speaking through tears, Naderev “Yeb” Sano pleaded with delegates to come to a “meaningful” resolution on combating climate change. His speech was met with a standing ovation.

But whether it will be met with action is a different story.

The U.S. has expressed deep reservations about taking blame for climate change and accepting some liability. An official U.S. briefing on the climate talks obtained by The Guardian this week confirmed as much. The U.S. has also publicly rejected calls for taking responsibility for global warming and for funding other countries’ responses to its effects.

“We don’t accept the narrative of blame,” the U.S. special envoy for climate change, Todd D. Stern, said in a speech in London last month.

“No step change in overall levels of public funding from developed countries is likely to come anytime soon,” he said. “The fiscal reality of the United States and other developed countries is not going to allow it ... We must and will strive to keep increasing our climate finance, but it is important that all of us see the world as it is.”

The U.S. has pledged to take part in a U.N. funding program that aims to set aside $100 billion a year for developing countries to prepare for climate change by 2020. But that program — and the U.S.’s commitment to help fund it — has come into question.

A report released by Oxfam International earlier this week shows that the U.N. fund is far short of its goals. The U.S. has said it has given $7.5 billion to the program. It’s not clear when or if it will give more. Other nations have given less than that, leaving the program with $7.6 to $16.3 billion, depending on whom you ask.

“What money has been put on the table — we found that it was counted with double accounting, murky accounting and smoke and mirrors,” said Kelly Dent, Oxfam’s climate spokeswoman. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in funding, and uncertainty makes it really difficult for poor and vulnerable countries to take action.”

But even if the industrialized countries involved in the fund came up with that $100 billion per year, it likely wouldn’t be enough to prevent another Haiyan-like typhoon from causing as much damage as it did.

“In the U.S. alone, we spent over $100 billion on Sandy and the drought in the Midwest last year,” said Bill McKibben, a climate activist and founder of “That gives you an idea of how much is needed. There’s not enough infrastructure funding in the world to protect us (from the effects of climate change).”

McKibben’s message — that the world needs more protection against rising waters and stronger storms than politicians are willing to pay for — may have been particularly resonant in the Philippines after Haiyan battered homes and left thousands dead.

Leaders in the country have warned for years that the Philippines faces unprecedented challenges by an increase in intense storms. But it’s only after Typhoon Haiyan that the warnings received international attention.

Now Philippine leaders are trying to capitalize on their moment in the spotlight.

Speaking in Warsaw, Sano said he would embark on a hunger strike until the world listened to his pleas for action.

“In solidarity with my countrymen who are struggling to find food back home ... I will now commence a voluntary fasting for the climate,” he said. “This means I will voluntarily refrain from eating food during this (conference) until a meaningful outcome is in sight.”

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