Typhoon Haiyan should be a wake up call to US action on climate change, argue Janet Redman and John Cavanagh
Americans are generous by nature. About half of U.S. families contributed to earthquake relief in Haiti in 2010, and millions of us have already supported typhoon aid for the Philippines.
But there’s a golden opportunity for our country to do much more. We can help generations of Filipinos withstand the typhoon seasons that rock that island nation every year from summer to fall. The most meaningful thing the United States could do is take decisive action on climate change right now.
As Typhoon Haiyan sent waves up to 20 feet high crashing over homes, farms and whole cities across the central Philippines, representatives of 194 countries were boarding planes to Warsaw for the annual United Nations climate talks. These negotiators are discussing ways to move forward to slow the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change.
The Philippine lead negotiator in Warsaw, Naderev Sano, announced last week that he was starting a hunger strike for the duration of the meeting until a “meaningful outcome is in sight.” Young people and religious groups have joined the “Fast for the Climate” to support Sano and to raise a flag for action in the climate negotiations.
While no given storm is the result of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, scientists do say this: The daily acts of giant corporations and millions of human beings using fossil fuels are warming the planet and making the oceans rise.
And warmer Pacific waters have increased the deadly punch of the typhoons that have battered the Philippines and other nations for centuries. We saw this ourselves in New Orleans and New Jersey with Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.
So, what should we do now? In addition to upping the $20 million the U.S. government has pledged in disaster relief (the storm displaced an estimated 670,000 people who live on small hard-to-reach islands, and the estimated costs of relief and cleaning up are hundreds of times that amount), the U.S. can do far more to help stop global warming.
We need a national response to match the scale of the destruction from this storm and of climate impacts happening in other parts of the world — from Himalayan communities repeatedly inundated by glacial floods to the savannahs of Africa, where drought has made water and food scarce.
For starters, our government can agree in Warsaw to an international approach for compensating the peoples of developing countries for the loss and damages they suffer because of global warming. That’s an area in which our own climate negotiators have been particularly intransigent.
Then, we need preventative action on the part of the U.S. and other polluters to lower the threat of future climate disruption. That will stave off many of the humanitarian disasters that will otherwise become increasingly frequent. We can do that in the medium-term by agreeing now to ambitious and legally binding cuts to climate pollution at home and regulating our economy to mitigate climate change. And we can provide support for all countries, including our own, to build carbon-free energy and climate resilience into their existing plans.
U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern has already tried to lower expectations at Warsaw. Fiscal hardship at home means no significant “change in overall levels of public funding from developed countries is likely to come anytime soon,” he said in London last month,
But this reluctance is a mistake. Taking action isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s smart economics. In 2008, the prominent British economist Nicholas Stern revised his estimate of the cost of climate change from 1 to 2 percent of global gross domestic product because of inaction to curb greenhouse gas pollution. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the World Bank calculate that every dollar spent on disaster prevention and preparedness now — like helping vulnerable communities adapt to a warmer world — will save between $5 to $7 in relief later.
We have the money. We simply need to shift priorities.
How about collecting a “typhoon tax” from the fossil fuel giants that have profited so bountifully from the polluting industries that contribute to the warming that just killed thousands of Filipinos? Or moving billions from obsolete weapons systems to a climate security fund? Or introducing a tax on speculative stock and derivatives trades, as 11 European countries are doing?
Yes, the United States can and must mobilize humanitarian aid. But we need to quickly pivot to a new national mission of building an environmentally responsible economy and repaying our climate debt.
Climate change is more than a moral outrage. It is killing people.
First published in Des Moines Register on 19 November 2013.