In the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan, debates over extreme weather require us to think harder about the relationship between the evidence, politics and institutions of scientific advice
The proposal, advanced by the G77 plus China, that the US and other nations should pay tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars to poor countries that suffer disasters, is a central theme of the climate negotiations now taking place in Warsaw, Poland.
It’s an idea that has been made more tangible by the tragic loss of life and devastation in the Philippines caused by super typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful observed storms of recent decades. This disaster in the Philippines is part of a long-term trend of increasing damage resulting from extreme weather events around the world.
The US has already provided $6bn to developing countries in “climate finance” over the past two years and has committed to spend more. In light of the demands for even more money in the form of climate reparations, last week a leaked US diplomatic cable expressed the Obama administration’s concern that poor nations will be “seeking redress for climate damages from sea level rise, droughts, powerful storms and other adverse impacts”.
In principle, this debate should be a short one. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recently issued two major assessments on extreme weather. Its report issued last month found little evidence to support claims that tropical cyclones (that is, hurricanes and typhoons), floods, drought, winter storms or tornadoes had become more frequent or intense. In the Western Pacific, where Haiyan occurred, in addition to a decreasing number of landfalls, the strongest storms have actually become weaker in recent decades, according to a recent analysis.
More to the point, a 2012 IPCC special report focused on extreme events and concluded that “long-term trends in economic disaster losses adjusted for wealth and population increases have not been attributed to climate change, but a role for climate change has not been excluded”. In other words, if changes in climate – whether due to human or other influences – are influencing the rising costs of disasters, we can’t detect that influence in the data. Yet, despite the IPCC’s findings, the issue of compensation for historic emissions has continued to gain traction in the international community.
The Obama administration is right to be concerned about this issue because it risks derailing discussions about energy policies, and wider actions to reduce vulnerabilities to disasters that might actually prove effective in the context of the very real threats posed by climate change.
Yet partial responsibility for the emergence of a debate on historical reparations lies squarely with President Obama. Despite the scientific evidence to the contrary, President Obama declared in his 2013 State of the Union Address that “Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods – all are now more frequent and more intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen, were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science.” According to the IPCC, only one of these claims is correct – we have indeed seen more heat waves.