Calls for action intensify at climate conference in wake of Typhoon Haiyan

This year's U.N. climate conference in Warsaw was expected to be a quiet international gathering. The horrific, still-unfolding tragedy wrought by Typhoon Haiyan half a world away has changed that. 

Spurred by a heartfelt opening-day appeal by the delegate from the Philippines, the conference has joined Tacloban on the global center stage as we try once more to rise to the challenge of climate change.

Haiyan struck the Philippines on November 8 with sustained winds up to 195 miles per hour, possibly a new record for tropical cyclones at landfall. As deaths mount - over 2,000 and counting - survivors are in a race against time for the food, water, medicine and shelter required to avert an even deeper humanitarian disaster, amid reports of landslides and flash floods.

Our hearts go out to the people of this region as they struggle with the loss and devastation with such bravery.

In this time of trial, the envoy from the Philippines to the climate conference in Warsaw is reminding us of the costs of climate change and that we need strong climate action now. Naderev “Yeb” Saño invoked the many parts of the world already suffering harm from climate change and made a plea to “stop the madness”. He has started a fast for the climate that can be followed on twitter as others join in at #FastForTheClimate.  

Scientists are still trying to understand the connection between specific weather events such as Typhoon Haiyan and climate.

We do, though, know three things.

First, warmer air holds more energy and moisture, so when storms develop, they pack a wallop, and the Philippines has been hotter than ever. During the first nine months of this year, the southern Philippines - along with regional neighbors in Australia and part of central Asia - recorded the highest average temperature since records began 134 years ago.

Second, warmer oceans pump more energy into storms that develop over them. Globally, oceans were the 4th-hottest on record during the month of September. And the Philippines, an equatorial archipelago where ocean temperatures averaged more than 1 degree F above the 30-year average during September, had some of the warmest water in the world.

Third, rising sea level makes low-lying areas more vulnerable to the kind of storm surge and flooding that took so much life and did so much destruction in the Philippines. 

Climate change is reshaping our world, and the science is telling us in every way possible that we can expect more extreme weather disaster going forward, unless we do something about this now.

 In fact just over the past few months, new reports have presented the impacts and implications of climate change very clearly. The November 6 report from the World Meterological Organization showed continued records being set by ever higher concentrations of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. Real Climate just reported new peer reviewed scientific analysis from Canadian and British researchers that global temperature rise has in fact been greatly underestimated showing that the phenonmenon of a so-called “warming pause” often raised by climate skeptics simply is not true. The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reconfirmed that humans are causing climate change and that climate change is already impacting us. And the United Nations Environment Programme recently reported that business-as-usual especially with our continued dependence on fossil fuels, takes us further and further from what is safe in terms of the health of our climate.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the climate treaty repeated that “now is the time” to act in a recent speech. She is right. At Warsaw and at home, countries need to show how serious they are. We don’t have to push ourselves to come up with immediate actions that we can take. Countries don’t need to wait until 2015 to strengthen their targets for reducing climate-disrupting emissions. And we need to see consistency between our leaders’ statements about climate change and the impacts of their actual decisions. We need regulation of carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants and rejection of dirty energy infrastructure such as tar sands pipelines. We need rapid deployment of fuel efficiency, energy efficiency and renewable energy. Internationally, more countries need to commit to stop public financing of coal projects and to elimination of fossil fuel subsidies and elimination of  the dangerous heat-trapping chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

Our blind adherence to business as usual when it comes to dependence on fossil fuels underlines that the real barriers to getting it right on climate change are political. At the same time that action to fight climate change is more urgent than ever, Australia put forward legislation to repeal the carbon price, remove renewable energy support, dismantle the independent Climate Change Authority and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and undo support for a long term target of reducing carbon pollution by 80% by 2050. And Canada, a country now driven by the tar sands oil industry, applauded them. Canada itself has already made it clear that it will not even meet its earlier commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Such climate contrary actions make leaders look out of touch with reality and irresponsible.

Others are showing that clean energy makes economic and environmental sense. China is considering a cap on coal consumption. The United States has proposed limits on carbon pollution from new power plants. India is moving forward with innovative state building energy efficiency codes with support from developers. Chile has a new commitment to advance renewable energy, with a law requiring 20 percent of national energy generation to come from renewable sources by 2025.  Mexico has a climate change law. And Germany has moved to major investments in renewable energy infrastructure with renewable energy accounting for a little over one fifth of the country’s energy needs last year. These efforts show what is possible.

Typhoon Haiyan and the urgent call for action from the Philippine delegation and many others has once again highlighted the urgency for climate action. The path is clear. What we need are leaders able to stand up to our business-as-usual dependence on fossil fuels and move us forward with clean energy.

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