What happened in the Philippines this past November was cataclysmic. Theres no other word for it. Thousands died, millions were displaced from their homes and the landscape was destroyed beyond recognition and turned into a howling wilderness.
In the aftermath, homelessness, hunger and disease stalk the ravaged towns and villages. It will be years before schools, clinics, hospitals, jobs, houses, businesses, communities, families, public services, clean water and farmlands can be restored. To put it succinctly, this event brings global warming into focus as the most critical human rights crisis on the planet. Our survival as a species is literally at stake.
Prior to Nov. 8, few in the world knew the name Tacloban, the capital city of the Provence of Leyte in the central part of the country known collectively as The Visayas where the typhoon occurred. Those names will soon be subsumed under other headlines and before long may be forgotten. But we shall forget the message of Typhoon Haiyan, or Yalanda as it is known in the Philippines, at our peril.
As if on cue, Typhoon Haiyan this year and Typhoon Bopha last year struck the Philippines the same week as the annual U.N. Conference of Parties on Climate Change. These are the unprecedented super typhoons of the planet, fueled by ocean waters heated up by global warming. They are harbingers of things to come.
Little has been accomplished during the 19 years of these conferences, despite promises of change from the worlds biggest carbon producers to curtail emissions and provide reparations to countries like the Philippines that have suffered the most from climate catastrophes. At the COP conference in Copenhagen in 2009, rich countries promised to provide $100 billion a year in climate aid by 2020, a pledge made by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. To date, no funds have been forthcoming.
Instead, COP 19 witnessed the rich countries, led by the U.S., blocking any discussions of loss and damage to victimized countries, causing 133 developing nations to walk out in protest. In response, lead negotiator for the Philippines, Naderev Yeb Saño, made an impassioned plea and delivered a petition signed by 590,000 people from around the world demanding urgent action to address climate change.
He was close to despair as he went on a hunger strike for the duration of the conference to dramatize his appeal. His partner delegate Mary Ann Lucille Sering put it most urgently as the conference ended with these words: Every time we attend this conference, Im beginning to feel like we are negotiating who is to live and who is to die.
Typhoon Haiyan has left a powerful warning for the world. We are now at the point where ecosystems are threatened and life on this planet as we know it may never be the same unless radical actions are taken. Rich nations cannot continue to provide subsidies to fossil fuel industries. Alternative and sustainable sources of energy exist, but the political will to implement them does not. Capitalist economies based on profit, growth and exploitation of the earths resources and human labor are not sustainable. New cooperative and harmonious systems must be developed.
Rich nations will have to consume much less and share much more and drastically cut carbon emissions. Yes, this does mean big changes in lifestyle among those of us in the rich nations, but theres no choice in this matter. The future of life on planet earth depends on it.
Tim McGloin, a retired research associate at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, works with the Philippine American Association of North Carolina, a nonprofit ( paanc.org) raising funds for Typhoon Haiyan relief and reconstruction.