Nature sent a cyclone – man made it worse

We can’t say whether climate change led to Typhoon Haiyan, but we can help nations at risk

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Thousands dead, hundreds of thousands made homeless. Parents holding the broken corpses of their children, churches used as makeshift morgues, bodies lying unburied in the street, aid efforts blocked by debris. The reports from the Philippine city of Tacloban and other places hit by Typhoon Haiyan are so painful as to be almost unreadable. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t want to know why it happened, and what – if anything – we can do to stop it happening again.

Inevitably, the wrangling has already started over whether man-made climate change was behind the disaster. Some are sure of the answer: Naderev Sano, the Philippines’ representative at the latest round of UN climate change talks (and a resident of Tacloban), broke down in tears as he addressed his fellow delegates this week, placing the blame firmly on global warming and pledging to go on hunger strike until a deal is reached.

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The idea that rising temperatures will cause more and more devastating storms along our coastlines is not new. The theory is fairly straightforward: tropical cyclones are caused by warm air rising off the sea. The warmer the sea, the more energy there is in the system, so the faster the cyclones and the greater the devastation.

So far, though, the evidence that it is actually happening is minimal. The world has indeed become significantly warmer – and the latest research shows that most of the extra heat has been ploughed into the oceans (hence the erroneous claims, based on surface temperatures, of a “pause” in warming). Yet the number and power of tropical storms do not seem to have gone up. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that there have been “no significant observed trends in global tropical cyclone frequency over the past century”. Nor is there strong evidence that they’re getting more intense: a 2010 World Meteorological Organisation study was unable to “conclusively identify anthropogenic signals” (ie human causation) in cyclone trends.

Of course, these giant storms are rare events, so trends are hard to determine – and most researchers do think that as temperatures rise, the trend will become more obvious. But at the moment, we can’t say that climate change is behind Typhoon Haiyan, Tropical Storm Sandy, or any other great disaster of recent years.

None of this is to say that there aren’t good reasons for trying to slow climate change. But if we want to prevent deaths and devastation from tropical cyclones, we need to start thinking in the same way that we do about earthquakes: not in terms of prevention, but mitigation. And that means economic and political development.

In early 2010, Haiti and Chile were struck by earthquakes. They were of similar size, and both hit populated areas. In Chile, 525 people died; in Haiti, the death toll was at least 100,000, perhaps double that. The difference was that Chile is more developed: its houses were built to stringent standards; its communications infrastructure enabled proper warnings; its roads allowed food and medical supplies to reach affected areas; and its less corrupt government meant that those supplies were not embezzled by officials.

The same is true of storms. We think of the Tropical Storm Sandy in 2012, or Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as devastating. But Sandy killed 72 people in the US and Katrina 1,833. Compare that to the cyclone that hit Bangladesh in 1970, killing half a million people, or another in 1991 that killed at least 138,000. Even the 2011 tsunami in Japan, terrible as it was, had a tiny fraction of the death toll of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 in the Indian Ocean.

In short, if you want to stop hurricanes killing tens of thousands of people a year, the most direct route is to make poor countries richer and better governed. Aid can play a part in the form of early warning systems, disaster education and other measures. But, unless at-risk countries have sturdy buildings, modern medicine and sanitation, good transport and communication and robust, democratic government, natural disasters will still hit them disproportionately hard. And the only way they are going to get those things is if they get richer.

The trouble is that this brings with it uncomfortable dilemmas. At the moment, increased economic activity means increased carbon emissions. China and India’s recent development was largely powered by coal; that helped drag them up the development ladder, but contributed greatly to the warming of the planet.

For all the concerns of the climate change purists, the price might – in the short to medium term – be worth paying. Typhoon Haiyan was not caused by climate change, as far as we can tell. But the devastation it left was caused by poverty and underdevelopment. That, at least, is something we can help to fix.

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