Climate change: when ignorance is a recipe for disaster


Climate change: when ignorance is a recipe for disaster

November 12, 2013
Peter Hartcher

Sydney Morning Herald political and international editor

View more articles from Peter Hartcher


<i>Illustration: John Shakespeare</i>Illustration: John Shakespeare

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.

People stand among debris and ruins of houses destroyed after Super Typhoon Haiyan battered Tacloban city in central Philippines. Click for more photos

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 – 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.

Ads by Google

Get 3 Solar Quotes

Compare 3 Solar Installers. Save Time & Money Now!

Compare Health Funds

Are Your Health Fund Costs Rising? Compare Health Fund Policies Today!

Mining Engineering Books

SME Handbook $324 UNSW Bookshop

144 comments so far

  • A balanced article, except that it overlooks the increase in wind speed records. Only two weeks ago a seemingly ordinary autumn storm over Western Europe broke the existing speed record at 195 km per hour. Wind gusts of 380 km per hour have been observed a few hours before landfall of typhoon Haiyan. We should not, cannot wait for another decade of painstaking scientific research to come to the conclusion that the top wind speeds in these storms are on the increase!

    rob de laet
    salvador brazil
    Date and time
    November 12, 2013, 12:26AM
    • STEEP… ? Did I miss something??

      Date and time
      November 12, 2013, 5:54AM
    • Steep me!! Is that right?? I just can’t steep it out. I’m going back to steep.

      Date and time
      November 12, 2013, 6:39AM
    • Good luck with global carbon pricing.
      I m sure climate change is first priority for Indians Chinese who r hard at work lifting millions of people out of poverty and into middle class. NOT.
      Australia is not the global policeman and has no right to give a lecture to others on benefits of carbon tax. Leave that to UN to come to an agreement.

      Goodluck jonathon
      Date and time
      November 12, 2013, 6:44AM
    • What to expect from the climate change negotiations in Poland – absolutely nothing. There is no chance that the delegates will do enough to significantly change the trajectory of our climate – we are off for the trip of a lifetime; where ever our climate goes, we will follow.

      We refuse to admit that our efforts are futile,
      Our response to reality nothing more than puerile.
      Like Canute, we stab at the climate change wave,
      In our determined efforts this world to save.
      Most things suggest that climate change is here,
      Yet, our desperate reaction nothing more than fear.

      Howe Synnott
      Date and time
      November 12, 2013, 6:48AM
    • Yes, you did!!!!

      Date and time
      November 12, 2013, 6:52AM
    • Great if all this real then let’s do something REAL to stop it. Do not fool yourself that $10-20 a week for which compensation was going to be given was going to stop the CO2 emission. No try $100-200 a week per person to stop the CO2 emission that are being caused by YOUR lifestyle. That is right it is not big industry that is the problem it is OUR lifestyle. Unless you are prepared to make REAL changes Peter get off your high horse. Giving up 2 coffees a week just does not cut it !

      Fact. Bob Brown has a lifestyle that places him in the top 5% of CO2 emitters. Happy to pay for this analysis to be done scientifically but sure Bob will not accept the offer. Offer is open to Christne as well ( love your DIAMOND ear rings Christne whichdirty mine did they come from)

      Date and time
      November 12, 2013, 7:28AM
    • Quickly someone throw big bundles of money at the wind!

      Date and time
      November 12, 2013, 7:42AM
    • @Howe Synnot

      How much carbon did you generate just to type that and submit it? If anyone commenting on this column had any regard for the environment, they would have turned their PC off as soon as they had finished reading the article.

      Myself? I have no regard. So I will be posting comments on SMH for the rest of the day, the end result being a net contribution to greenhouse gases. Sure I feel guilty, but I’m taking a leaf out of the larger economies handbook: no care taken, no responsibility accepted.

      Malik the magic sheep
      Date and time
      November 12, 2013, 8:08AM
    • @ Rob,

      The article clearly shows how convoluted the assumptions for climate change are, the data is often incomplete and the time of accurate record keeping is minimal when we look at global weather patterns which have occurred over thousand year cycles.

      This assumption that foreign governments must put carbon taxes in place is ludicrous and wishful thinking of the west. Can you seriously see people in developing countries give up affluence over extreme green ideals, I.e a chance to make bucket loads of money over none at all.

      The zealous preaching from the religion of climate change very often fails to understand basic human behavior and base their arguements on alarmist predictions. Whilst sipping champagne, snacking on smoked salmon and enjoying their already aquired affluence.

      Date and time
      November 12, 2013, 8:18AM

More comments


Featured advertisers
&lt;!– UI NOTE: Make iframed content accessible: –&gt; &lt;a href=””&gt;View these special offers by BetterBills.&lt;/a&gt;

Read more:

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.