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Coffee House

Global warming isn’t to blame for the disaster in the Philippines

12 November 2013

5:15 PM

12 November 2013

5:15 PM

According to news reports, Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines a few days ago, is now overshadowing the UN climate summit in Warsaw. Some delegates and climate campaigners have been quick to suggest that global warming was to blame for this disaster.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

When it comes to cyclones and tropical storms, something quite remarkable has happened this year. The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season, which forecasters had predicted would be more active than normal, turned out to be a complete washout. For the first time in 45 years, no major hurricane made landfall. This year has also been marked by the fewest number of hurricanes since 1982, and the first since 1994 when no major hurricane formed. In fact, it has been one of the weakest hurricane seasons since modern record-keeping began about half a century ago, U.S. weather experts explained.

So, how can the same alleged cause, global warming, inhibit hurricanes on one side of the world while triggering typhoons on the other side?

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Climate activists claim that tropical cyclone activity, including the frequency and intensity of typhoons, has increased as the global temperature has gone up. Yet empirical observations published in scientific journals show that despite the moderate warming during the 20th century, the number of tropical cyclones making landfall in the Philippines did not increase and has remained unchanged for more than 100 years.

Hours before the typhoon hit the Philippines, authorities moved nearly 1 million people to evacuation centres. Many of these structures collapsed when the tropical storm hit coastal towns and villages, killing thousands. Much of the initial destruction that killed so many was caused by winds blowing at 235 kilometres per hour — and occasionally at speeds of up to 275 kph/h. But it didn’t have to be that way.

A superstorm of similar magnitude, Cyclone Yasi, hit Queensland, Australia, in February 2011. The cyclone hit Queensland with an eye of 100 km in diameter and wind speeds of up to 285 km/h. Yet local disaster management committees had initiated their plans long in advance. Evacuation, including of hospitals, was completed more than four hours before the cyclone struck. Because Australia is an advanced nation that can afford to implement highly effective disaster warning systems, not a single person died as a direct result of this destructive cyclone.

People around the world who are exposed to natural hazards are increasingly relying on the effectiveness of warning systems.  Disaster warning systems are most effective for natural catastrophes that develop gradually and relatively slowly, such as floods or tropical cyclones. Only two months ago, a fierce cyclone ripped along India’s east coast. It only killed 25 people as millions of people were evacuated in advance of the tropical cyclone, thus minimising the number of fatalities. 14 years earlier, over 10,000 people were killed in a similar cyclone that arrived without much warning.

Even poor countries such as Bangladesh, which is especially vulnerable to cyclones, have learnt how to prepare for the recurrent threat of cyclones and have succeeded in significantly reducing cyclone-related deaths. The two deadliest cyclones in Bangladesh’s history occurred in 1970 and 1991, killing 500,000 and almost 140,000 people respectively. In the last two decades, Bangladesh has introduced better warning systems that have helped to reduce deaths and injuries from cyclones significantly. A severe cyclone in 2007, for instance, caused 4,234 deaths, a 100-fold reduction compared with the devastating cyclone of 1970.

As the eminent US-researcher Indur Goklany has documented in numerous papers, the average annual deaths and death rates from all extreme weather events has declined by more than 90 per cent since 1920. This decline occurred despite a vast increase in the populations at risk and more complete coverage of extreme weather events. Goklany also shows that, globally, the number of deaths and death rates due to storms (including hurricanes, cyclones, tornados, typhoons) have declined by 47 per cent and 70 per cent respectively since the 1970s.

As a result of economic development and technological advancement, the world is getting increasingly better at coping with and adapting to the effects of extreme weather events. As Goklany concludes: ‘Currently many advocate spending trillions of dollars to reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gases, in part to forestall hypothetical future increases in mortality from global warming induced increases in extreme weather events.  Spending even a fraction of such sums on the numerous higher priority health and safety problems plaguing humanity would provide greater returns for human well-being.’

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