What a deadly typhoon in the Philippines can tell us about climate adaptation

November 12, 2013

The massive typhoon that devastated the central Philippines over the weekend was deadly for a host of complex reasons — accidents of geography, a growing population, poor infrastructure. And, to a lesser extent, global warming may have factored in.

An aerial view shows damaged houses on a coastal community after Typhoon Haiyan hit Iloilo province in the central Philippines. One of the strongest typhoons ever to make landfall devastated the archipelago.<br />Raul Banias / For Reuters
An aerial view shows damaged houses on a coastal community after Typhoon Haiyan hit Iloilo province in the central Philippines. 
(Raul Banias for Reuters)

It's that last one that's getting all the attention this week, as the latest round of U.N. climate negotiations opened in Warsaw on Monday. The delegate from the Philippines, Naderev Saño, gave an emotional speech arguing that Typhoon Haiyan was "a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to procrastinate on climate action."

But what does this mean, exactly? There are all sorts of things that Typhoon Haiyan highlighted about the difficulties that poorer countries such as the Philippines will face in dealing with natural disasters as the world warms. Here's a partial rundown:

1) The Philippines has become increasingly vulnerable to typhoons for lots of reasons — and climate change is only one angle here.

Thanks to basic geography, the Philippines has long been one of the most storm-ravaged places on Earth, with about 8 to 9 typhoons making landfall each year, on average. The warm waters surrounding the island nation help fuel strong tropical cyclones, and there are few natural barriers to slow the storms down or break them up.

Those tropical cyclones appear to have become increasingly deadly in recent years — since 2004, the Philippines has experienced five storms that have each killed more than 1,000 people, not including Haiyan. In a report last year, the Philippines Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) argued that typhoons were becoming more destructive over the past 20 years. But the reasons given were multifaceted.

View of Haiyan and night lights over Asia on Thursday morning EST. (EUMETSAT via Flickr)
View of Haiyan and night lights over Asia on Thursday morning EST. (EUMETSAT via Flickr)

There are small hints that global warming may be playing a role: One 2008 study in Nature found that the very strongest typhoons in the northwest Pacific seem to have become more intense since 1981 — by about 20 mph, on average — as the oceans have warmed. But that trend wasn't statistically significant, and another recent study found no increase in landfalling typhoons in the area over the same period. Detecting a clear trend here is difficult, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded. And it's even harder to say whether the strength of a single storm like Haiyan can be attributed to man-made climate change.

But that's not the whole story, either: Sea levels around the Philippines have also risen by half an inch in the past 20 years, faster than the worldwide average. That can intensify the risk of storm surges, which reportedly reached 15 to 20 feet in Haiyan's case. It's also more clearly a consequence of global warming — though groundwater extraction is a major factor here too.

Even so, climate is just one part of a more complex tale. Another key reason for the rise in destruction: The Philippines population keeps expanding in high-risk coastal areas. As the AP's Seth Borenstein reports, the city of Tacloban, which got hit hardest by Haiyan, has nearly tripled in population over the past four decades. Nearly 40 percent of the country now live in large, storm-prone coastal cities. Even if the typhoons weren't changing at all, many more people are now in harm's way.

Poverty and shoddy construction have also combined to make storms especially lethal. "About one-third of Tacloban's homes have wooden exterior walls," reports Borenstein. "And 1 in 7 homes have grass roofs, according to the census office." Even a weaker storm than Haiyan would have caused plenty of havoc. The DENR also notes that the deforestation of mangroves has removed a natural barrier that can blunt the impact of storms.

What's more, as my colleague Max Fisher reports, extremely poor infrastructure and a weak central government has hindered the disaster response in the Philippines. Only 22 percent of the nation's roads are paved. Aid workers have struggled to reach the affected areas. The list goes on.

2) Typhoons aren't the only natural disaster the Philippines has to worry about. This map from the DENR shows just how many different climate-related risks the Philippines could face in the years ahead:


There's no simple story here: The northern parts of the country could see more intense rainfall events. The central Luzon area could face a higher risk of typhoons, as the oceans heat up, increasing the "speed limit" for storms. Meanwhile, western Mindanano could face greater risk of drought due to both rising temperatures and El Niño events.

Add it all up, the U.N. ranks the Philippines as the third-most vulnerable country in the world to climate change, thanks to a combination of natural exposure and poverty. "Owing to their proximity to the sea," a recent report notes, "island states are particularly exposed to the natural hazards of cyclones, flooding and sea level rise."

But the precise risks are often difficult to pinpoint — and that makes preparation even harder. Many climate models still have trouble making predictions at a very fine-grained, regional level. And typhoons are especially difficult to forecast: While the IPCC thinks it's "likely" that tropical cyclones will get stronger as the oceans warm, it's less clear how the frequency of storms will change in the years ahead (they may become less frequent).

3) Adaptation can help, but it's not always enough. Many countries have managed to reduce their exposure to natural disasters over the years by implementing detailed adaptation plans. If climate change does increase the risk of natural disasters in the years ahead, then those plans will become increasingly important.

Bangladesh, for instance, has steadily reduced the number of deaths from tropical cyclones since the 1970s through early-warning systems, shelters and evacuation plans, and building coastal embankments.


India has also stepped up its defenses: In 1999, a cyclone hit the state of Odisha and killed 10,000 people (see map). This year, a similar-sized cyclone, Phailin, hit the same region — but only 44 people died. There were a lot of reasons for that, but some credit goes to improved weather forecasting and a mass evacuation plan that moved nearly 1 million people to safety before the storm hit.

The Philippines, for its part, is still struggling with disaster preparation and response. Early reports suggest that early storm warnings didn't reach everyone in afflicted areas such as Tacloban. And the hard-hit city was wholly unprepared for a massive storm surge. (See more from my colleague Jason Samenow on why the Philippines needs to take these surges more seriously.)

But it's worth noting that even better preparation and infrastructure isn't always a panacea — particularly in the face of massive storms. Many of those who did receive warnings before Haiyan hit simply had nowhere to go, thanks to the nation's far-flung island geography. What's more, hours before Haiyan hit, Philippine authorities managed to move 800,000 people to sturdier evacuation centers — churches or schools. Yet many of those structures couldn't withstand the storm's ferocity.

“Sometimes, no matter how much and how carefully you prepare, the disaster is just too big,” Zhang Qiang, an expert on disaster mitigation at Beijing Normal University, told the AP.

4) Where will the money come from for adaptation? There are two key questions that always come up at international climate talks like the one now going on in Warsaw. First, how will the world cut its carbon emissions to slow global warming? And second, where will the money come from to help poorer states prepare for its effects? The second question is likely to get more attention in the wake of Haiyan.

Consider, again, the Philippines. The country's officials estimate that each typhoon season already knocks about 2 percent off GDP each year — basic reconstruction is already a struggle, let alone building infrastructure to prepare for worse disasters in the future. The Philippines' stated position is that wealthy countries should pitch in to help with the latter.

This is always a contentious issue in global talks. Developing countries like the Philippines argue that the big emitters should help pay for climate adaptation — after all, nations such as the United States and Europe and China were the ones who put all that carbon in the atmosphere. (The United States is already sending emergency aid in the wake of Haiyan, $20 million so far, as is Britain and Australia, but this is usually considered a separate conversation.)

Wealthier nations, for their part, often argue that it's difficult to disentangle how much, exactly, they owe here. After all, as we've seen above, the devastation from Haiyan is only partly due to climate change. Things like poor construction and shoddy infrastructure played a major role here. How do you separate out all those responsibilities? How do you assess blame for climate change specifically?

Those debates have often bogged down climate talks — and even when differences do get resolved, the money isn't always forthcoming. Back in 2009, the world's developed countries pledged $30 billion in climate aid, which would rise over time. But a recent report from Oxfam found that most developed countries have yet to make any concrete plans to follow through.

"We have received no climate finance to adapt or to prepare ourselves for typhoons and other extreme weather we are now experiencing," Saño told the Guardian. "It cannot be a way of life that we end up running always from storms."

Related: Everything you need to know about "super typhoons."

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Neil Irwin · November 12, 2013