Hurricane Haiyan, the wakeup call we’ve long needed?

Of course one cannot ignore the growing tragedy in Tacloban in the Philippines from Hurricane Haiyan (or should that be “Hypercane” as some are debating here and here), one of the most powerful storms to ever make landfall.

Inevitably people have been asking whether the increasing severity of storms such as this are due to climate change. Indeed a delegate for the Philippines has now gone on hunger strike at a climate conference in solidarity with his fellow countrymen.

I would immediately point out that linking any one extreme weather event to climate change is a risky business…although that cuts both ways (deniers are often very quick to pick up on any spell of cold weather as “proof” AGW isn’t happening, but then get upset when people try to link extreme weather events to AGW…!?!).

However there has long been an acceptance that a warmer planet will mean warmer seas and thus more powerful storms. And this is even that controversial a statement, I recall the climate skeptics Richard Lindzen mentioning it in the past. Indeed, there appears to be a link between this hurricane and a strip of unseasonably warm water in the Pacific Ocean, which acted almost as a funnel for the growing storm, allowing it to gain an unprecedented level of energy before making landfall.

However, putting aside any arguments linking Haiyan to AGW, certainly, such storms are going to become more common in a warming world and that should give pause for thought to anyone.

Indeed a recent opinion poll in the US showed that climate change denial is on the wane. Notably in states such as the mid-west of America (which has undergone a prolonged drought…again can’t directly be linked to AGW, but last time the world was few degrees warmer much of this region was a desert) and the Eastern sea board (which took a fair old whack this hurricane season).

The problem with mega storms like Haiyan is that its outside the range of what defences we have against storms and how much they can cope with. While the Philippines has seen storms before (much like Australia has seen bush fires before…just not as intense and there is evidence to link the increased frequency with climate change) such extreme events are more than the local infrastructure can cope with.

In Tacloban the storm sent a 5 metre high wall of water into the town which along with the high winds wiped out the hospital, airport and much else. Many of the emergency services workers who would ordinarily be out fixing things up and organising the relief operation were either killed or made casualties themselves.
Similarly with Hurricane Katrina, yes New Orleans has been hit by hurricanes before, but the scale of the storm broke the sea walls and dumped several cubic km’s worth of water into the city, far more than the pumping systems (that would ordinarily pump out any overflow) could cope with.

Water water everywhere…
And critics often underestimate the impact of climate change and its likely effects. For example I’ve heard deniers belittle the impact of sea level rise, why they say what harm is a few inches of sea level rise going to do.

Well firstly, even the IPCC isn’t sure how much sea levels are going to rise. The much quoted 40 cm by 2100 is towards the latter end of their estimates. A Glacier surge in Greenland or Antarctica could easily add a few metres of sea level rise, potentially over a few decades (the fossil record reveals similar levels of melting in past incidents of rapid warming, such as at the end of the ice ages).

However even the smaller estimates within the range of inches would cause all sorts of problems. It would flood wetland areas and wipe out beaches that otherwise act as a buffer with which to break the power of an approaching storm (damage to the wetlands of the delta by both sea level rise and oil industry dredging were contributory factors in the New Orleans flooding).

Also there is the effect on water supplies to consider. In parts of Florida, as I discussed in a prior post, the “head” of fresh water is down to just 10 inches (well within even the lowest estimates of sea level rise). Thus even a limited level of sea level rise would wipe out this head and eliminate much of the state’s drinking water supplies. Similarly, in the event of a storm, the worse the impact the storm surge has on water supplies. And one of the most pressing supplies to get into Tacloban has been drinking water, as the storm surge flooded wells with foul or salty water.

In short, what these events show is that waiting for climate change to happen is a dangerous game to play. Its equivalent to the fire safety inspector coming around your house, recommending you get a smoke alarm or remove certain items (e.g. gas cylinders, etc.) from the house, think about escape routes, stop people smoking indoors, etc. Only for this denier type to pop up and say oh why house fires start all the time, it’s all hugely complicated stuff, we may as well just do nothing and take our chances. Taking action to do something about climate change now will vastly outweight the costs and the economic impact of doing nothing.

And other consideration is the political aspects. One of the common reasons for many on the political right to deny climate change is their fears about the intrusions of “big government”. However, as events in Tacloban show, dealing with the aftermath of such events is well beyond the ability of any NGO, corporation or individuals to cope with. It requires governments to solve them.

And more climate emergencies on a global scale will likely lead to more government, more internationalisation of authority, not less. If the free market proves unable to deal with the crisis of climate change, the people will demand new governments, that have the powers and authority to do so. And we’ll have the deniers to thank for that!


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