Typhoon Haiyan damage underscores cost of climate change

Yeb Saño, head of the Climate Change Commission of the Philippines, attributes typhoon to climate change and calls for international community to implement a 'loss and damage' mechanism

Asian Development Bank's Rajat Nag explains more time is needed to fully assess the extent of the damage of Super Typhoon Haiyan in this CNN interview. Video: ADB / CNN

A week after one of the world’s worst storms hit the Philippines, the initial damage assessment has been estimated at a staggering amount of US$14 billion - far more than the amount of aid that is pouring into the country.

This colossal cost was reflected in the satellite images of various areas in the country’s central provinces which were shown to be completely wiped out by Super Typhoon Haiyan. In particular, it obliterated the hard-hit coastal city of Tacloban in Leyte and Guiuan in Eastern Samar, where the typhoon first made landfall.

Yeb Saño, head of the Climate Change Commission of the Philippines, said that this devastation exposes “the reality that is climate change”, during his emotionally charged speech at the opening session of the on-going climate conference in Warsaw.

He added: “We must stop calling events like these as natural disasters … Disasters are never natural. They are the intersection of factors other than physical. They are the accumulation of the constant breach of economic, social, and environmental thresholds. Most of the time disaster is a result of inequity and the poorest people of the world are at greatest risk because of their vulnerability and decades of maldevelopment.”

Because of this, Saño and delegates from other developing nations – those in the G77, the Alliance of Small Island States, the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) group, and China – are pushing for a loss and damage mechanism in the climate negotiations.

They are demanding that developed countries largely responsible for greenhouse gas emissions should provide climate compensation to developing countries, whose communities are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

The LDCs, in the interim, have submitted their National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat during the conference. This is a set of concrete plans and projects on climate adaptation. 

“Good planning is essential to empower poor countries to deal with climate change. At the same time, it is clear that the support to countries is presently inadequate and must urgently be stepped up,” said UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres.

“Typhoon Haiyan has been the latest in a string of worsening extreme weather events around the world, and we know there are more to come … Now and in the future, the poorest and most vulnerable countries urgently require predictable finance and technology to become more resilient,” she added.

To date, foreign aid to the Philippines for Typhoon Haiyan stood at about US$ 271 million, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines. However, this only includes those that have been assigned a monetary value, or those which have been verified and processed by the DFA with the respective donor government or organisation.

Australia, Japan, the European Union and the United Kingdom have given some of the largest financial international assistance. The United States, although only initially giving US$100,000 in monetary aid, provided an additional US$20 million on top off heavy military support, such as the deployment of their USS George Washington carrying 5,000 personnel for search and rescue operations.

This storm affected one of the poorest areas of the country. People who are unable to bear the consequences, people who have no livelihood, or shelters, so the scale of the disaster is unprecedented, and we’re going to take some time to assess the damage

Rajat Nag, ADB managing director-general

However, this financial support – excluding those given by global corporations – only amounts to a little under two per cent of the damage and economic impact brought about by Typhoon Haiyan.

While more is expected to come in, especially with the recent launch of the United Nations Flash Appeal - a plan to raise US$301 million for emergency relief funds - there is little progress on the global scale of climate financing through a loss and damage mechanism.

Currently, there is growing frustration in the climate talks in Warsaw. The US and the EU are refusing to consider historical pollution levels to determine a fair share of climate responsibilities, thereby forestalling any possibility of climate financing. Japan, on the other hand, has reduced its emissions target and Australia is planning to repeal its carbon tax and will only review their emissions targets in 2015, when the new climate treaty for 2020 is in place.

According to a Responding to Climate Change (RTCC) report, UK energy and climate secretary Ed Davey called Japan’s backtracking “deeply disappointing”.

Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister David Cameron just said in The Guardian that there is increasing evidence that climate change is causing more extreme weather disasters like Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

The impact of which is “horrific”, said Rajat Nag, Asian Development Bank managing director-general, in this video with CNN (see above).

The current damage and economic assessment is still too early to be definite, but it could be accurate, which could mean two to three per cent of the country’s GDP, or higher, he explained.

“But more importantly, I should make this point, that this storm affected one of the poorest areas of the country. People who are unable to bear the consequences, people who have no livelihood, or shelters, so the scale of the disaster is unprecedented, and we’re going to take some time to assess the damage.”

Currently, the ADB is arranging a donation of US$23 million for immediate relief within the next few days. The organisation, through a number of donors, is also providing an additional US$500 million emergency reconstruction loan for long-term rebuilding efforts.

Nag emphasised: “The impact is going to be years, because reconstruction will take a long time. The immediate impact on the economy next year will be detrimental. We will see losses of income, losses of livelihood, but there will be some stimulus – if it were that – from all the reconstruction that will happen. Yes, the economy will suffer, but again, the impact on the people will be in the longer term.”

Bill McKibben, climate change activist behind the global climate movement 350.org, said even the US spent more than US$100 billion on Hurricane Sandy and the Midwest drought last year.

“That gives you an idea of how much is needed. There’s not enough infrastructure funding in the world to protect us (from the effects of climate change),” he was reported by Al Jazeera as saying.

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