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Ocean’s warmth, typhoon’s rage: Climate change and the storms of the 21st century

From October to November 2020, four typhoons made landfall in the Philippines. Already in an economic and social slump brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the country was spared no destruction by Typhoon Ulysses (Vamco) and Super Typhoon Rolly (Goni) in particular, which dealt P19 billion and P17.9 billion in damages, respectively, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council. This places the two among the top 10 costliest typhoons in Philippine history, eight of which have occurred within the last decade.

For those who were in the paths of these typhoons, each successive battering offered little time for respite, let alone preparation. With the ground already saturated from three successive typhoons, the fourth, Typhoon Ulysses, triggered some of the worst floods in recent memory—floods comparable to or even more severe than those dealt by Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana) in 2009.

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Warming waters

“I am sorry, but the Philippines can expect more intensified tropical storms in the future,” warns Dr. William Holden, an associate professor from the University of Calgary, in an interview with The LaSallian. This, he relays, will manifest noticeably by the end of the 21st century, when the typical storm system will be a typhoon rather than severe tropical storm and “even typhoons of moderate intensity will increase by 14 percent.”

This intensification in typhoon strength is driven primarily by human-induced climate change. “We are not just talking about individual contributions, but activities resulting from carbon emissions from multi-billionaire companies,” states Jefferson Estela, co-founder of Youth Strike 4 Climate Philippines. Holden adds that the principal mechanism that drives climate change lies in increased “sea surface temperatures, and increased water vapor, [which] act to increase the energy available for tropical cyclone formation.” This is also augmented by “an increase in higher subsurface sea temperatures”, as it negates a phenomenon—the upwelling of cold water due to the disturbance of the ocean’s surface caused by tropical cyclones—that reduces surface water temperatures and weakens tropical cyclones.

This, coupled with other factors, like the country’s geographical location, elevated the Philippines to the top of the list of countries at risk from the climate crisis, according to a 2019 report by the Institute for Economics and Peace, despite only contributing 0.4 percent of the global carbon dioxide emissions, as indicated in a 2018 report by Energy Atlas.

An uneven burden

As typhoons intensify—and more rapidly at that—due to climate change, populations living in the paths of these buffed up storms bear the brunt of the burden. A burden that, more often that not, is disproportionate to their share of greenhouse gas emissions. This concept, Holden elucidates, is called “climate injustice” and can be readily be seen when comparing Philippines, where Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) made landfall in 2013, and his native Alberta.

“Here in Alberta (Canada), we emit around 67 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person, while Filipinos emit around one metric ton of carbon dioxide per person, yet people here act as if they have a God-given right to turn the Earth into Venus,” the professor laments. Having himself been to Tacloban during the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), Holden relays that interviewing the survivors there gave him greater perspective on the issue. “Quite frankly, I am ashamed to be an Albertan!” he remarks.

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The question of intervention

Sadly, this year’s typhoons are just a glimpse of the future—a hotter future accompanied by even more extreme weather disturbances with seemingly no end in sight. “Even a degree increase in temperature is enough to fuel iyong mga malalakas na bagyo,” emphasizes Rosalina de Guzman, Assistant Weather Chief of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration.

(Even a degree increase in temperature is enough to fuel severe typhoons.)

As such, Estela urges the government to listen to the calls of the Filipino people. She advocates for the government to send a “clear policy signal about the urgency of this [climate] crisis” in the form of a National Declaration of Climate Emergency. Our local leaders should also “address or at least mitigate the disaster and climate risks of the country by funding projects, researches, and scientific studies,” he adds.

With a climate crisis that gets worse every year, the Philippines, especially in poverty-stricken areas, should not be expected to survive solely through resilience, humanitarian, and adaptation.

By Jasper Ryan Buan

By Kenneth Edward Tan

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