After Typhoon Haiyan, a call for global climate justice

The US does not accept enough responsibility for its part in creating the catastrophe in the Philippines

November 19, 2013 1:00PM ET
A typhoon victim in Jaro, in the western Visayas region of the Philippines, Nov. 18, 2013. The U.N. has confirmed at least 4,500 people were killed in the disaster.
Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

On my last visit to the Philippines, in 2006, I went to Leyte and Samar, two islands where my mother’s sister’s husband, Tito Romy, has roots and family. During my time in Tacloban, the capital of Leyte province, I spent many of my days at a fishery-restaurant-karaoke-bar with his friends and family, who extended every kindness to me. One afternoon, a boat came in with a huge afternoon catch. The beachside filled with the sounds of folks hollering and cheering in Visayan and furniture clamoring as people excitedly burst out of their seats. Tito Romy’s cousin Bong ran to the boat and made sure that all the lapu lapu, a favorite fish of mine, was bought, prepared and taken to our table. It was hard to leave. Today I feel a very different range of emotions when I think about Tacloban and the rest of Leyte and Samar, two of the areas hit hardest by Super Typhoon Haiyan.

As the Philippines continues to grapple with the tremendous destruction wrought by Haiyan, the second and final week of the United Nations climate talks in Warsaw is under way. John Upton of Grist.org describes the climate talks as a treaty process from the 1990s that was “intended to fight the looming threat of climate change.” Two decades later, though, that threat is no longer looming; it is here. And the United States, while generous in the Philippines’ time of climate-instigated crisis, does not accept enough responsibility for its part in creating it.

According to a report released Nov. 18, the average annual reported economic losses from natural disasters quadrupled from about $50 billion a year in the 1980s to almost $200 billion a year in the past decade. That brings the total cost from 1980 to 2012 to $3.8 trillion, with three-quarters of that caused by extreme weather. The U.S.’s original $20 million pledge for immediate aid in the Philippines and swift support on the ground was commendable, especially when compared with China’s initial $100,000 commitment. Both countries have since increased their commitments. However, the amounts are eclipsed by the estimated $15 billion worth of damage Haiyan caused in the Philippines. What is more, the U.S. is poised to oppose the U.N.’s efforts to set up a separate funding mechanism to compensate developing countries for loss and damage caused by global warming.

The United States does not have a strong track record at global climate talks. Still, I am disappointed in its leadership at the current U.N. talks. The U.S.’s immediate response to this climate disaster has been among the strongest and fastest, but its posturing in Warsaw indicates that it has little intention of taking any real responsibility for damage caused by its massive carbon emissions. It also points to a lack of will to make the real changes necessary to preserve the health of our planet. In the U.S. we emit an estimated 5.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year (PDF). Only China, at more than 9.8 billion tons annually, produces more CO2 emissions.

Humanitarian aid, while admirable, is not commensurate with developing a loss and damage mechanism that would fund climate-change adaptation in vulnerable (and poor) nations. The aid provided over the past week addresses the symptoms of climate change but does nothing to stop or slow it. If anything, offering aid is the least that high-carbon-emitting nations can do. In 2008 the United States, China and the European Union accounted for 56 percent of all carbon emissions. Compare that with the 0.28 percent for which the Philippines was responsible. Wealthy nations have been reaping the economic benefits of industrialization for years, while the environmental and economic cost is born by poorer countries like the Philippines. (According to German think tank Germanwatch’s 2014 Global Climate Risk Index (PDF), of the 10 countries most affected by extreme weather events from 1993 to 2012, eight were low-income or lower-middle-income countries.)

There is a huge moral hazard in dubbing the Haiyan catastrophe a Philippine crisis. It is a global crisis.

There is a huge moral hazard in dubbing the catastrophe in the Visayas a Philippine crisis. It is a global crisis. Countries, especially developed ones, must drastically and rapidly reduce their carbon emissions if life as we know it is to be maintained. This will require both personal responsibility and structural changes. Individually, we must look hard at how our own choices and lifestyles contribute to the global problem of climate change. At the same time, together as civic-minded people, we must participate in whatever ways possible to advance systemic changes that improve the health of our environment.

It is an ironic twist that for the second year in a row, a horrifically fatal typhoon has torn through the Philippines around the same time of the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change. In December 2012, in the middle of last year’s talks, Typhoon Bopha killed more than 1,900 people and cost the Philippines some $1 billion. Typhoon Haiyan struck three days before the Warsaw convention. The human, economic and environmental costs of climate change are growing too big to bear. As the Warsaw talks come to a close this week, real solutions to mitigating the risk and damage of climate change must be put on the table, and concrete agreements on how nations can collaborate to help vulnerable countries adapt to our changing planet must be made.

I have been asking after my friends in Tacloban since last week. The only news I have received is that Bong is injured (it is not known to what extent), everyone else is still missing and the fishery-restaurant-karaoke-bar was washed out. My heart aches for them and for all who are still trying to connect with family and friends.

It is time for us to ensure that our homes, our countries and our world change by design and not by default.

C.M. Samala is the director of 18MillionRising.org, which promotes Asian-American and Pacific Islander civic engagement through technology and social media. Previously she was the director of online strategy and media for The Story of Stuff Project.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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