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    Haiyan, climate change, death toll and the bleating of deniers

    Yesterday, November 30, the official death count from typhoon Haiyan passed 5,600, with more than 1,700 people still missing. Yet growing louder we hear the voice of those claiming that climate change poses no risk—sounding as credible as the bleating of an earlier generation of deniers who kept repeating that smoking tobacco was harmless.

    How many more tens of thousands of people must die before we learn the lessons of Haiyan?

    How many millions more left homeless before we learn that we must cut back on burning coal, oil and natural gas, as fast as possible?

    Haiyan is tragic confirmation that climate change is hurting now, not at some time in the distant future. And it’s getting worse. Weather disasters— storms, floods, droughts, heat waves and forest fires—are becoming more frequent and more intense. Compounding much of this is the rising sea level.

    At an estimated sustained speed of 315 kilometres per hour, Haiyan’s wind was probably the strongest of any ocean storm to reach land. But the U.S. government’s Earth Observatory says meteorologists will be debating “the top wind speed for some time.” No aircraft monitored the wind speed and most land instruments were smashed. Based on analysis of differences from visible and infrared satellite imagery, however, Haiyan blew past the top of the one-to-eight scale of the Observatory’s estimated wind speeds.

    Haiyan might or might not have been caused by climate change. What is in little doubt is that climate change increased the storm’s intensity, damage, and death. “The strongest storms are getting stronger,” says a 2008 report from the U.S. National Climatic Data Centre. “As you warm the climate, you basically raise the speed limit,” says Kerry A. Emmanuel, atmospheric scientist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. So ocean-born storms more severe than Haiyan almost certainly await us.

    Such storms, of course, are only one suite of climate change’s growing disasters. The most ominous warning comes from a 700-page report from the International Energy Agency, released, coincidentally, four days after Haiyan struck.

    The cause of global warming is no longer questioned. It is the rise in the atmosphere of heat-trapping greenhouse gas—principally carbon dioxide—resulting mostly from burning coal, oil, and natural gas.

    It took almost 250 years for the carbon dioxide pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million to rise to a cited danger level of 350 ppm by 1988. We’re now paying for passing that first danger sign.

    It took just 25 years to climb another 50 ppm, to 400 ppm this year. That’s up 41 percent from the pre-industrial level. We are now at the CO2 level last seen more than three million years ago, in the Pliocene Age, long before humans walked the earth. The world then was much warmer, the ice caps much thinner, and the sea level 60 to 80 feet higher than now, a level that would put under water the present-day homes of many more than a billion people.

    The next-sited danger is a rise in CO2 to 450 ppm, expected to increase average global temperature by at least two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial. And that 20 C. increase is the limit set by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change beyond which we face the risk of catastrophic and irreversible climate change. “Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time,” IPCC co-chair Thomas F. Stocker declared, seven weeks before Haiyan struck. “In short, it threatens our planet, our only home.”

    While it took 25 years to jump from 350 to 400 ppm, the next jump to 450 ppm will be quicker. In its 700-page, November 12 “World Energy Outlook 2013” report, the International Energy Agency forecasts a one-third rise in total energy consumption during the inclusive 25-year period 2011 to 2035. This, says the IEA, will cause CO2 emissions to “rise by 20 percent to 2035.” And that will push the concentration well beyond the potentially catastrophic 450 ppm level.

    Even more ominously, the IEA warns that the increasing carbon emissions leave “the world on a trajectory consistent with a long-term increase of 3.60 C., far above the internationally agreed 20 C. target.”

    When Haiyan hit the Philippines, 190 delegates were in Warsaw to negotiate a new UN global climate treaty. They were brought to their feet, many with tears in their eyes, by what must have been the most emotional speech ever presented to climate scientists. “What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness,” the Philippines’ chief negotiator Naderev Saño cried. “The climate change is madness.”

     

    TAGS Haiyan,climate change,fatalities,typhoons,denial

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