November 14, 2013
By Samantha Smith, Leader of the WWF’s Global Climate and Energy
Early on Wednesday morning, the WWF team currently based in Warsaw for the UN’s annual climate conference huddled around a laptop to hear Rafael Senga, our colleague at WWF Philippines, provide a first-hand account of the profound damage caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan. He was stranded in one of the islands lashed by Haiyan after attending a renewable energy consultation. This is what he told us:
It’s the storm surge that has caused the most damage. This wasn’t expected by people here. We just hadn’t seen a surge like it before. It reached five metres high and battered coastal communities like a tsunami, drowning scores of people. The story that we are now beginning to realise here is just how many males of the household – fathers and older sons – stayed back to look after their family’s properties and belongings after government ordered the evacuation of coastal communities as the monster storm approached.
So many fathers have been lost. This is one of the saddest stories that is emerging. You can imagine the loss these families are suffering, both now and in the years ahead. Many young children died, too, because the storm surge even reached some of the evacuation centres. More than 2,000 people have died and 660,000 have lost their homes – but we don’t yet know the final figures because rescue teams have not yet reached many remote rural areas.
Ten million people – 10% of the population – have been affected. Initial estimates by the Germany-based Cedim Forensic Disaster Analysis put the total damage at US$8 billion to $19billion. It’s the worst natural calamity we have experienced in our history. We’ve had volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and many typhoons, but this is the worst. We have experienced destructive super typhoons more often in the last decade and Filipinos now fear that with the changing climate, things are bound to get worse in the future.
The rarefied halls of an international conference centre are not the ideal location to absorb the emotion and urgent needs of people fighting for their very survival, but the human tragedy currently being played out in the Philippines has provided a timely reminder that negotiators must focus their minds on the ever-important, yet long intractable, issue of “Loss and Damage”.
Put simply, L&D – as it’s called in the negotiators’ lingo – is the principle that some communities and nations around the world will simply not be able to “adapt” to the worst impacts of climate change – sea level rise, more intense storms, floods, ocean acidification, forest degradation, heatwaves, etc – in the decades ahead as the world continues to warm. Instead, they will need to be compensated for their loss of livelihoods, property, territory, ecosystems, biodiversity, and, in the worst cases, human life.
It is a both a matter of hard money and social justice – a potent cocktail that has seen this issue become one of the most emotive and hard-fought agendas in the 20-year history of these annual UN climate talks.
WWF firmly believes that it is time for the deadlock to be broken. What better motivation can the negotiators have than see the loss and damage currently being experienced in the storm-ravaged Philippines?
That is why, along with our NGO partners CARE and ActionAid, we are today in Warsaw launching a new report called “Tackling the Climate Reality”. It calls on the negotiators gathered here at COP19 to do the right thing by breaking the deadlock and establishing an international mechanism to address Loss and Damage. We believe that they need to treat Loss and Damage as a separate matter to that of mitigation (committing to reduce emissions) and adaptation (building infrastructure such as flood defences). Given its importance – which is only exacerbated by the continued delay in reducing emissions – it deserves its own formal structure within the UNFCCC process. As our new report states:
Whilst the UNFCCC has existing mechanisms and instruments on mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology and clean development, there is no specific mechanism to address loss and damage. Nor can loss and damage simply be subsumed under existing frameworks and ongoing negotiations. Instead, it must be regarded as a ‘new era’ of climate change alongside, and in addition to, mitigation and adaptation.
A new, dedicated international mechanism on loss and damage is therefore needed under the UNFCCC to assess and address the significant residual impacts of climate change on vulnerable countries. Parties agreed at COP18 that the role of the Convention on loss and damage would include: enhancing knowledge and understanding; strengthening global coordination and coherence; and enhancing action and support to address loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change. This report outlines the specific elements, functions and modalities of such an international mechanism.
As I mentioned, these negotiations can get very technical and hard to follow – and are often conducted behind closed doors – but the details really do matter for millions of people around the world, both now and in the decades ahead. If Loss and Damages continues to be ignored, or kicked once again down the road, by negotiators (largely from the prosperous nations who have already benefited from more than a century of fossil fuel-enabled development) then the injustice of climate change will continue to stain the international community.
If you don’t accept that the world’s changing climate will cause loss and damage to millions of people around the world, then please listen to the parting words of my Filipino colleague Rafael:
We normally get a Super Typhoon once every 3-5 years. But in recent years we seem to have had at least one at the end of each year. According to the Weather Underground, half the storms on an informal list of the strongest ones to hit land in the 20th and 21st centuries ended up striking the Philippines. A 2008 study found that in the north western Pacific where Haiyan formed, the top 1 percent of the strongest tropical cyclones over the past 30 years are getting on average about 1 mph stronger each year — a phenomenon some scientists suspect is a consequence of global warming.
“The strongest storms are getting stronger” said study co-author James Kossin of the National Climatic Data Center. Haiyan “is what potentially could be a good example of the kind of the things we’re finding. “Similarly, the Philippines has seen its sea rise nearly half an inch in the past 20 years — about triple the global increase”, according to R. Steven Nerem of the University of Colorado. Higher sea levels can add to storm surges, creating slightly greater flooding. And the typhoon season seems to be getting longer. It normally runs from June to September, but now it seems to be extending into our so-called dry season and as late as January.
The IPCC recently concluded that it has low confidence in its predictions about storms, but it did say it is likely that storms will intensify in a warmer climate, if not become more frequent. Urgent continued research is required. But the fear here in the Philippines is that storms will get worse as the ocean continues to heat up. According to NOAA, the sea temperature in the western Pacific this time of the year should be 28C, but the temperature when Haiyan formed was still at 32C. That’s a lot of extra energy.
Some are already predicting that Super Typhoon Haiyan will reduce GDP by 1% this year. We were once the largest exporter of rice in the world, but, due to the damage caused in recent years by these storms, we are now a major net importer. The farmers that once grew rice, coconuts, sugar cane and bananas are now abandoning their fields and migrating to the cities. These storms are really causing significant loss and damage to our economy.