Climate change: when ignorance is a recipe for disaster
- November 12, 2013
The Philippines had several days’ notice that a super typhoon was on its way and it warned its people long and often. Many evacuated. But, for an estimated 10,000 who today lie dead, there was no defence against its brute force.
As tropical cyclone Haiyan continued across the South China Sea to assault Vietnam, where the government had evacuated some 900,000 people in anticipation, one question being asked is whether it is the strongest on record.
The answer? Based on the estimate by the US military’s installation on Hawaii, the Joint Typhoon Warning Centre, it was the most powerful recorded cyclone to make landfall. It hit the Philippines with sustained winds of 305km/h to 315km/h.
Typhoon Haiyan slams the Philippines
People stand among debris and ruins of houses destroyed after Super Typhoon Haiyan battered Tacloban city in central Philippines. Photo: Reuters
Japan’s Meteorological Agency, however, estimated it to be much weaker, at some 230km/h. That wouldn’t put it in the top 10. There were no direct observation points on the Philippines to settle the matter. But to the dead, and to the living who must try to rebuild from economic damage estimated by Bloomberg Industries at $US14 billion, it is a distinction without a difference.
Another question being asked is whether climate change has contributed to the cyclone’s ferocity.
It is a pregnant moment to ask. Negotiators from around the world are starting to arrive in Warsaw for the next round of United Nations talks on climate change. This round will culminate at the end of 2015 in new commitments on carbon emissions covering the years beyond 2020.
Australia is sending an official and not a minister; the Abbott government is preoccupied. The new Parliament opens on Tuesday and Abbott’s first priority is to try to repeal the carbon tax.
”Haiyan should be a five-alarm wake-up call for negotiators in Warsaw and the capitals that sent them here,” writes Jamie Henn – co-author of the book Fight Global Warming Now and co-founder of 350.org – for US news website The Huffington Post. ”Climate change is loading the dice for extreme weather events like Haiyan.”
But some climate activists have developed an unfortunate habit of latching on to every weather-related disaster as a promotional device for their agenda.
This is a subject too important to be left to the hysteria of frustrated carbon activists or to what former prime minister John Howard ”instinctively” feels may be exaggerations.
So is it true? The Rosetta Stone for interpreting climate developments is the methodical work of the thousands of scientists who contribute to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The global framework of negotiations is based on its findings. It has a high degree of confidence that anthropogenic or man-made global warming is real and damaging.
Last year the IPCC issued a report, Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation. In its summary for policymakers, it reports: ”There is evidence that some extremes have changed as a result of anthropogenic influences, including increases in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.”
Fair enough. But, specifically on tropical cyclones like Haiyan, it finds: ”The uncertainties in the historical tropical cyclone records, the incomplete understanding of the physical mechanisms linking tropical cyclone metrics to climate change and the degree of tropical cyclone variability provide only low confidence for the attribution of any detectable changes in tropical cyclone activity to anthropogenic influences.
”Attribution of single extreme events to anthropogenic climate change is challenging … There is low confidence in any observed long-term (i.e., 40 years or more) increases in tropical cyclone activity (i.e., intensity, frequency, duration) after accounting for past changes in observing capabilities.”
In other words, the state of knowledge is that man-made climate change has not made any clear difference to tropical cyclone activity.
But what of the future as the planet warms? ”Average tropical cyclone maximum wind speed is likely to increase, although increases may not occur in all ocean basins,” the IPCC reports. ”It is likely that the global frequency of tropical cyclones will either decrease or remain essentially unchanged.”
But that’s not the end of the story. Climate change might not have made cyclones more frequent or more intense. But it is having other effects that threaten to be force multipliers for cyclones.
The IPCC report again: ”It is very likely that mean sea-level rise will contribute to upward trends in extreme coastal high water levels in the future … There is high confidence that locations currently experiencing adverse impacts such as coastal erosion and inundation will continue to do so in the future due to increasing sea levels, all other contributing factors being equal.
”The very likely contribution of mean sea-level rise to increased extreme coastal high water levels, coupled with the likely increase in tropical cyclone maximum wind speed, is a specific issue for tropical small island states.”
The chief meteorologist for the Weather Channel in the US, Paul Walsh, asked to summarise the effect of climate change on Haiyan, told CNBC: ”I wouldn’t say that climate change is a direct contributor to this. That’s something that’s still being discussed.
”But one of the things that makes these storms, particularly for the US east coast, more potentially damaging is that sea levels are rising and continuing to rise and even smaller storms can have a devastating impact.”
In other words, climate change is working to make ordinary weather patterns more dangerous. It doesn’t seem to be happening through any direct causal link to cyclones. But it doesn’t need to. A rising sea level will intensify the power of cyclonic winds to create bigger storm surges, according to the IPCC.
Man-made climate change is real and dangerous. Is it causing more or bigger cyclones? There’s no evidence that it is. But, again, it’s a distinction without a difference. Because it’s making normal cyclones more damaging. Rising sea levels will supercharge them.
There is no need for exaggeration and there is no excuse for inaction.
Peter Hartcher is the international editor.
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