Typhoon Haiyan and Climate Change

Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, the Category 5 storm that hit central Philippines on November 8, 2013 with its 195 mph winds and 13 foot storm surges, was the first storm of this magnitude to ever make landfall. But it certainly won’t be the last.

Unfortunately, the Philippines is no stranger to such disasters. This is the third year in a row that a destructive typhoon has pummeled through the archipelago. In 2011, Tropical Storm Sendong/Washi brought about torrential rainfall causing flash floods and mudslides resulting in over 1,200 fatalities. The following year, Super Typhoon Bopha/Pablo, a Category 5 storm with 175 mph winds flattened villages in the Mindanao region of the Philippines leaving over 1,000 dead. Now barely 11 months later, the forces of nature have once again claimed even more lives in the Philippines with fatalities estimated at 2,344 and counting, with 600,000 people displaced.

On top of all that, since the Philippines lies in a very volatile area in the Pacific’s Ring of Fire, it ranks as the third most disaster prone country in the world, with the constant threat of volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, typhoons, and earthquakes ever looming. Typhoon Haiyan is actually the 24th tropical storm to hit the country in 2013 alone. To make matters worse, decades of deforestation, large-scale mining, and stripping the land of its natural elements have eroded the country’s capacity to weather these storms.  So, I was not kidding when I said that the island nation is no stranger to such disasters, and climate change is exacerbating this already dire situation. 

As the planet warms and the climate changes, scientists say that storms will become stronger with average intensities increasing by 11 percent by the end of the century. It is hard to ignore the fact that the Philippines is a low-lying country in warm ocean waters with sea surface temperatures having risen nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, at a rate that’s 15 times faster than it used to be. And these warm waters tend to feed and make storms stronger. Then there is the fact that the levels of the Philippine Sea has been rising at a faster rate than others at 10mm/yearand these rapidly rising sea levels make flooding worse and results in deadly storm surges, which caused a majority of Haiyan’s destruction.

While we grapple with the latest devastation in the Philippines, we cannot continue to ignore all the other environmentally vulnerable nations who are bearing the brunt of climate change as well. It is lead Filipino climate negotiator Naderev “Yeb” Saño speaking at the 19th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP19) in Warsaw, Poland, who is making sure we don’t.

In his moving speech at the opening session of COP19 three days after the storm hit on Monday, November 11 (and one year after he made a similar speech at COP18 when Typhoon Bopha hit),  Saño points out that

“…climate change will mean increased potential for more intense tropical storms and this will have profound implications on many communities, especially who struggle against the twin challenges of the development crisis and the climate change crisis. Typhoons such as Haiyan and its impacts represent a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to delay climate action.”

“…To anyone outside who continues to deny the reality that is climate change, I dare them, I dare them to get off their ivory towers and away from the comfort of their armchairs. I dare them to go to the islands of the Pacific, the Caribbean, 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 sea ice caps, to the large deltas of the Mekong, the Ganges, the Amazon, the Nile where lives and livelihoods are drowned, to the hills of Central America that confronts 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.

Not to forget the monster hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern seaboard of North America as well as the fires that razed Down Under. And if that is not enough, you may want to pay a visit to the Philippines right now.”

We will continue to see these drastic effects brought about by climate change until concrete action can be taken. Yeb Saño, along with other delegates at COP19, have taken a stand and have vowed to go on a hunger strike in solidarity with the starving masses in the Philippines until real action toward addressing climate change is made: ending dirty energy subsidies, drastically reducing the use of fossil fuels, and protecting vulnerable nations by committing funds to help them adapt to inevitable climatic changes.

And as we wait to see how the climate change negotiations unfold over the next two weeks, thousands of Filipinos anxiously await word from family members in the Philippines, including myself. The storm may have passed, but now the real struggle begins as communities figure out how to stand up and once again rebuild an already fragile world.


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