After Yolanda/Haiyan: The worst is yet to come

One thing is sure, in the future, these extreme events will become more frequent and intensify – unless we successfully mitigate climate change

 Friday, Nov 8, 2013, will be a day long remembered in the Philippines.

On that day, the strongest typhoon ever recorded in the world, devastated many islands in the Visayas, the central part of our archipelago. Thousands are reported to have died, while hundreds of thousands of families have lost not only their homes but also their sources of living, as Super Typhoon Yolanda (international codename Haiyan) ripped through 34 provinces across the country. Some of these areas already suffer from high poverty incidence rates and are still reeling from the effects of a powerful earthquake.

Extensive looting and lawlessness have been reported with local governments paralyzed and national government agencies scrambling to respond to what is likely the biggest disaster – natural or man-made – the Philippines ever confronted. Power outage and loss of communication lines in parts of the Visayas and Luzon have made it hard to confirm the total number of casualties as well as the areas affected and the extent of the damage.

US-based Weather Underground declared Yolanda a category-5 super typhoon because it has sustained winds of more than 252 km/h. The typhoon categorization was based on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. You may link Saffir-Sampson Hurricane Wind Scale to Typhoons of this strength could cause extreme flooding, storm surges and damage infrastructure. Scientists have warned that climate change could intensify extreme weather events such as typhoons and their effects like flooding.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had declared this as early as in their 2001 assessment report. The IPCC recently released its 5th assessment report (AR5) which contained the same warning. AR5 also concluded that scientists are now 95% sure that climate change is driven by human activities. 

It cannot be scientifically determined yet, at least with high confidence that Yolanda, as Sendong, Pablo, Ondoy, Frank, Milenyo, and Reming before it, result from human-induced climate change. But one thing is sure, in the future, these extreme events will become more frequent and intensify – unless we successfully mitigate climate change. However, because we are already committed to some climate change initiatives in the future, we also need to put in place adaptation programs to reduce our vulnerability.

Warsaw Climate Change Conference

As we wrote this, government representatives were on their way to Warsaw, Poland for the 19th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change conference. They know there is stronger scientific evidence that anthropogenic or manmade activities have caused climate change.

We will be joining these talks as advisers to the Philippine delegation led by Secretary Lucille Sering, the vice-chair of the Climate Change Commission.

In Warsaw, all eyes will be on the Philippines, with negotiators from over 190 countries holding climate change talks from November 11-22. Negotiators aim to ensure that countries remain on track in reaching a legally-binding agreement by 2015 in a meeting to be held in Paris, France.

This landmark agreement will mandate both developed countries and possibly emerging economic powers like China and India to considerably reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to prevent global warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius.

Science and politics

One of the biggest challenges in making climate change negotiations effective is creating a stronger connection between science and policy. The certainty that science offers about the causes and impacts of climate change has yet to be fully enmeshed in the language of politics and priorities of governments, which have the responsibility of making sure the public is prepared for, and protected from, the effects of climate change.

But the urgency of this message is not likely to break new grounds in COP 19. As it is, COP 19 is not seen as a venue where drastic commitments for emission reduction would be made, or significant progress in longstanding issues on adaptation and mitigation would be reached. The emergence of the AR5 findings is not seen to change this picture.

A member of the European delegation, who asked not to be named, told us that he does not think AR5 will affect the negotiations “to any great length.”

“The vast majority of people involved in existing negotiations already have their minds set as regards climate change and its causes,” he said in an email.

Philippine Climate Change commissioner Naderev Sano believes the same. “I would hope that a report like that could be so provoking, but based on our experience with our process, even extreme events that are happening are never enough to bring the multilateral process to a pace that would bring us to a trajectory to solving climate change,” he said.

This is because scientific knowledge is just one of the considerations in a political process such as the negotiations. National interests concerning the economy are a factor in the development of positions in an international discussion. Domestic politics also plays a part.

The US and China

Todd Stern, the US special envoy to climate change said before the World Future Energy Summit in January 2013 that “in the real world, countries will reject obligation they see as inimical to their core interests in development, growth and eradicating poverty.”

The United States, one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases along with China, has historically declined to commit to binding targets for emission reduction. While it is one of the countries that pioneered the establishment of the IPCC in 1988 and is the first industrialized country to ratify the UNFCCC in 1992, it has not been supportive of measures – both international and national – calling for the reduction of its carbon footprint. The US also did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which calls on industrialized countries to slash their greenhouse gas emissions by 5% compared to 1990 levels.

The Obama administration, however, has made combating climate change a priority. In his second term, Obama unveiled his new climate action plan, where he promised to lead the US towards a low-carbon economy.

The US also acknowledged the importance of AR5. US Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized that it is not just a “run of the mill report” because it was produced by scientists. Prior to this, Kerry had said that battling climate change was a priority in America’s strategic dialogue with China in July. US and China have the world’s biggest footprint, accounting for almost 40% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Kerry noted that what makes the AR5 credible is that it is not a “political document produced by politicians. It’s science.”   

But as the climate change negotiations show, science is not enough to jolt governments into making ambitious reduction targets. National concerns play a pivotal role and this also holds true for China, which has eclipsed the US as the world’s biggest emitter.   

In his March 2013 paper, “China and International Climate Change Negotiations,” Professor Zhang Haibin of the Peking University said that abatement costs, or the costs of solving an environmental problem, is one of China’s considerations behind its apprehension to commit to legally-binding mitigation targets.

Zhang said that China, which is heavily dependent on coal, would have to restructure its energy industry to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. “A commitment to reduce GHG emissions under these conditions will undoubtedly lead to a deceleration of China’s economic growth and weaken its potential for future development,” he wrote. The other two major factors in China’s actions in the international climate change negotiations are ecological vulnerability and the refusal of developed countries to enter into a legally-binding regime itself.

Paul G. Harris, author of the book, “What’s Wrong With Climate Politics and How to Fix It,” said that national interests impede the progress of the international negotiations. He also pointed out that the stand of the US and China to not commit to legally-binding mitigation targets unless the other one does so is inimical to the negotiations. “The whole world is being held hostage to these two nations’ supposed interests,” he said.

Harris pointed out this status quo could be changed by shifting to “people-centered diplomacy” where the focus should be on people, the welfare of human beings, not on national interests.

Carbon budgets

This is not to say that science is completely subsumed or drowned out by politics in the climate change talks. In their paper “The Arduous Process of Climate Change Negotiations: How Science Can Facilitate the Desired Outcome,” Kateryna Holzer and Joëlle de Sépibus noted that the findings of the IPCC – first released in 1990 – was the impetus itself in drafting the UNFCCC. In COP13, in Bali, Indonesia, the negotiators took note of how imperative and urgent climate change actions are, as referred to in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4).

The AR5 now has findings that raise interesting questions for negotiators in Warsaw. One is on carbon budget, or the amount of carbon that could be emitted before global warming exceeds 2-degrees Celsius.

AR5 said that cumulative carbon emissions from manmade activities should not exceed 1trillion tons or 1,000 petagrams of carbon (1,000 PGC) to prevent the global temperature from going beyond 2 degrees Celsius. AR5 stated that in 2011, 531 PGC (petagrams) had already been emitted – the remaining carbon budget could be exhausted in 30 years.  

Christiana Figueres, UNFCCC executive secretary, told The Guardian that the negotiations would not be based on the carbon budget where amounts of future emissions would be allocated to countries. She added that basing the negotiations on future emissions is not practical and would treat carbon budget as a “zero-sum game.”

Educate the public

IPCC will release the reports of the 2nd and 3rd working groups on the 5th assessment report in March and April 2014. These would delve on adaptation and mitigation, respectively. Intersessional meetings and COP20 would be held months after, again raising questions on the impact of scientific knowledge on the negotiations.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz of Tebtebba, a nongovernment organization promoting the welfare of indigenous peoples, said there should be more efforts to educate the public about the findings and importance of the IPCC reports.

“The illiteracy of the public in understanding what the report is saying is very dismal. It’s in a very bad state,” she said. “That also is a challenge for strengthening the interface of science and policy – the science is there, but the policy does not match [it].”

Sano acknowledged the vital role of the public, particularly those in developed nations, in pushing for governments in aligning their climate actions with IPCC reports. “The report is only as good as the people who believe in it – the biggest public that has to believe in the report does not believe in the report and that would be the American public as represented by the Congress.”

Beyond Warsaw

This is the 3rd year in a row when the Philippines has been devastated by a climate-related disaster at the time of the annual climate change negotiations. In 2011, it was Sendong/Washi in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan. In 2012, it was Pablo/Bopha in Southern Mindanao. And now, Yolanda/Haiyan in the Visayas.

Like in 2011 and 2012 when many in the Philippine delegation, including our head of delegation Climate Change Secretary Lucille Sering, were from Mindanao, some are from, or have relatives in, the areas devastated by Yolanda/Haiyan. That includes Naderev Saño, our lead negotiator, whose family hails from Leyte.

Climate change is personal, it is clear. We thought Warsaw was going to be tedious, certainly cold. It will still be cold but the Philippine delegation must now work hard to increase the temperature of the climate change negotiations and urge decisive action so that a clear work plan for the next year of negotiations is agreed upon. That work plan must lead to an agreement of the elements of a strong and effective 2015 climate change agreement.

If we fail again this time, the worst will definitely come and Yolanda/Haiyan would be nothing compared to the coming storms. –

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