Typhoon Haiyan and Tacloban: Another Love Canal ‘Focusing Event’? Not So Fast

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Media coverage of the devastating Philippines typhoon – and how the public over time digests that news — will shape any lasting climate policy impact. Best advice for now? Don’t hold your breath anticipating a quick policy response.


Environmental historians and aging environmental journalists (no pointing of fingers called for here) can well remember how a single dramatic event, amplified by media, can lead to passage of a new law and, more importantly, to an expanded public mindset. Experts refer to those as “focusing events.”

There’s of course the example of the burning of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River and the impact news of those flames had on passage of landmark pollution control legislation in the U.S. in the early 70s, including the Clean Water Act. There’s the headline-grabbing attention given to upper New York State’s Love Canal and of the Union Carbide Bhopal, India, tragedy … and the added momentum given by them to passage of the Superfund law and of its community right-to-know law. There’s the influence of fouled Mississippi River drinking water as measured in Louisiana … and adoption of the Safe Drinking Water Act. There’s the London and Donora, Pennsylvania, smog emergencies … and eventually the Clean Air Act. The alar on apples and the “60 Minutes” scoop. And the BP spill in the Gulf, with the continuous live-shot of glop gushing. (Query whether that’s yet had the “focusing” impact many might think justified.)

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The list could go on, and it’s not just in the environmental field that a singular notable event can trigger congressional and/or public action. Think of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas 50 Novembers ago (on the 22nd to be exact) and the rise of a southern and Texan politician, Lyndon B. Johnson, to the presidency, and, of course, to passage of the Civil Rights Act. Talk about a focusing event!

So we now have the international heartbreak of Typhoon Haiyan and the loss of thousands of lives in a town the vast majority of Americans for sure had never heard of, Tacloban in the Philippines. The horror of what is widely described as recorded history’s most intense storm ever to strike land came just as representatives of 190 nations were/are meeting in Warsaw in an effort to advance global efforts to combat climate change.

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Source: Yahoo News (Reuters)

But does that mean history will repeat itself? Will Tacloban and Haiyan precipitate the logical follow-up to Kyoto? Will Tacloban and Kaiyan be another shot across the bow, like Love Canal? Or another blank, like BP?

Not to be overly pessimistic … but don’t hold your breath for the former.

Ask yourself today just how many Americans, after all of the media coverage of this nightmare, can properly spell “Haiyan.” Or, for that matter, “Tacloban”? How about just pronounce the terms, let alone go quickly to either on a map of the world. Hundreds upon hundreds killed in a devastating storm in Oklahoma or Idaho or Missouri? Expect the Congress, and even the House of Representatives, to show a pulse, jump on it. But the same number dead from a “natural disaster” in an area unknown to most Americans — and to most of their law makers? Hmmm.

The story itself has all of the markers that current communications researchers and theorists — if not yet practitioners — say it needs to command public attention, interest, and perhaps even action.

Drama? Check. Just look into the eyes of those innocent Filipino storm survivors as they look into the eye of the cameras and beg for food, for clean water, for survival.

Emotion? Check. Think of the Philippines’ lead negotiator, Yeb Saño, addressing the Warsaw conclave: “…looks tired. He speaks softly, hands clasped together, his voice occasionally cracking with emotion,” one blogger posted from the Polish capital. The “emotional appeal was met with a standing ovation,” Associated Press reported: Haiyan “cast a gloom over U.N. climate talks” and Saño “broke down in tears,” and more than a few hardnosed international negotiators were similarly reduced to tears.

A human face on the issue? Check. That of a child, now stilled. Or that of a forlorn parent, now suddenly childless. Or, for those involved personally in the Warsaw talks, that of Saño, now fasting to protest what he called the “madness” of a warming climate.

“We can stop this madness right here in Warsaw,” Saño implored his fellow negotiators, even as U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres asked them to “go that extra mile” in light of the timely and timeless reminder of risk. But will they?

Ah. Reality, with a dose of caution too, sets in. Apparently not one to get too ahead of the evolving evidence-based scientific thinking, Saño was reported as acknowledging continuing challenges in scientifically attributing to climate change a specific weather event. At the same time, he reminded all of us, “The physics is quite simple, that if you have warming oceans it will generate storms, especially intense storms.”

Quibble with that if you must. But the reality is that the oceans in fact are warming. And warmer oceans fuel stronger hurricanes (or cyclones or typhoons, all three words have the same physical meaning, and the terms connote only the geography of the storm, nothing about the event itself).

Much of the “mainstream” media reporting on Tacloban (Is it with a “c” or with a “k”? you might be excused for having to remind yourself.) also appeared reluctant to draw a clear line between any single storm and climate change, while also adding some critical nuance to the point.

“Scientists remain cautious” and “There is not enough data,” reporters Henry Fountain and Justin Gillis reported for The New York Times November 12. They quoted MIT storms expert Kerry A. Emanuel as saying it’s still “impossible to find out” when it comes to an individual storm. And they also reported NOAA/National Climatic Data Center atmospheric scientist James P. Kissin as saying “The data suggests that things like this will be more frequent with global warming.” And saying “When you strip everything else away, we’re seeing a general rise in sea level. There’s no question that storm surge is going to be compounded.”

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Source: Weather.com

In its November 12 story, A.P. reported that notwithstanding all the proper scientific caveats, “extreme weather such as hurricanes often prompt calls for urgency” at U.N. talks. But it concluded, all the same, that “no major decisions” are expected from the Warsaw talks.

The Philippines’ Saño too was reported as being “under no illusions that one storm will change what has become a set of convoluted, tough, and often bitter negotiations.”

No, for those wondering, he was not there referring to the halls of our U.S. Congress.

The half empty/half full nature of it all is perhaps summarized in the headline for Time blogger Bryan Walsh’s November 11 post: “Climate Change Didn’t Cause Supertyphoon Haiyan. But the Storm is Still a Reason to Fight Global Warming.”

Walsh pointed out in that posting that IPCC’s September 2013 Working Group I Fifth Assessment Report found “‘low confidence in attribution of changes in tropical cyclone activity to human influence’ so far.” And “low confidence” also in prospects for increased tropical cyclones over the next few decades … along more than a 50/50 chance of more by 2100. (That’s a “step-back” from the 2007 IPCC estimate, Walsh noted.)

Then too, there’s the sea-level rise issue. Walsh wrote that higher seas mean higher surge and more flooding. (Some have used a basketball analogy: Raise the floor of the court without affecting the 10-foot height of the rim, and you get more slam dunks.) “But given the fact that Haiyan’s storm surges were as much as 20 feet, climate-driven sea-level rise wouldn’t have been the deciding factor in the supertyphoon’s devastation,” he wrote.

Which does not mean that a warmer world won’t put more devastating typhoons — hurricanes, cyclones, call them what you will — in our future.

So back to the prospects that Haiyan and Tacloban may be the proverbial straw breaking the ironclad back of climate science contrarians on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. What say ye?

Long-time climate activist Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists perhaps put it best: “Never have the stakes been higher with expectations so low.”

In the end, it likely will take even more than the haunting devastation of a place few Americans can find on a map, by a storm with a name fewer yet will long remember, to prompt a meaningful international, let alone national, policy response.

And this, one might dare say, is not yet that “end.” Whether it someday may be seen as the beginning of the end, no one can yet possibly know. To be continued.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: bud@yaleclimateconnections.org).
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14 Responses to Typhoon Haiyan and Tacloban: Another Love Canal ‘Focusing Event’? Not So Fast

  1. Don Paul says:

    Bud,

    I count myself among those broadcast meteorologists who do feel human activity is the primary forcing mechanism in our ongoing warming (now focused in our oceans). However, you should be aware it would be most difficult to tie Haiyan’s extraordinary intensity to that warming. In fact, in surveying sea surface temperatures (and near surface temps) prior to its landfall, SSTs in its path were not anomalously warm. They were about average, unlike the warm anomalies in the NW Atlantic which may have fueled Sandy as she made that hard left last year. In my judgment, Haiyan is not the canary in the coal mine you’d want to choose, unless you want to base additional concerns for this disaster upon potentially inaccurate science.

    Don Paul
    Chief Meteorologist, 4Warn Weather
    WIVB/WNLO Buffalo NY

    • Bud Ward says:

      Don Paul: Excellent point, and I don’t disagreee with your assessment that Haiyan per se is not — so far as scientists can responsibly establish — the poster child for climate change impacts. Whether policymakers and politicians, acting on far different bases than those motivating scientists, will also see things the same ways is the question I wanted to explore. Previous “focusing events,” as mentioned in the post, may not in themselves have been the optimum poster child, but they nonetheless triggered policy responses. As you suggest,we can hope that policymakers on this issue will be motivated not by “potentially inaccurate science,” as you call it…but by the world’s substantial body of first class science. But question whether there’s yet reason to be confident that is happening. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Presenting the other side of the debate:

    New paper projects a decrease of tropical cyclones over the 21st century

    http://hockeyschtick.blogspot.com/2013/08/new-paper-projects-decrease-of-tropical.html

    Was Haiyan the Strongest Storm Ever? No

    http://hockeyschtick.blogspot.com/2013/11/was-haiyan-strongest-storm-ever-no.html

    New paper finds Pacific cyclone activity is currently at the lowest levels of the past 5,000 years

    http://hockeyschtick.blogspot.com/2013/11/new-paper-finds-pacific-cyclone.html

    Are Typhoon Disasters Getting More Common? No

    http://hockeyschtick.blogspot.com/2013/11/are-typhoon-disasters-getting-more.html

    Con Artists Exploit Typhoon Haiyan

    http://hockeyschtick.blogspot.com/2013/11/climate-con-artists-exploit-typhoon.html

    • Bud Ward says:

      Thanks for submitting these. And the word from the peer-reviewed literature and scientists contributing to it is …?

      • “And the word from the peer-reviewed literature and scientists contributing to it is …?”

        Dr. Roger Pielke Jr summarizes the scientific literature in the link I posted above and his many other posts

        http://hockeyschtick.blogspot.com/2013/11/are-typhoon-disasters-getting-more.html

        In a nutshell, there is no evidence that global cyclone activity has increased, in fact, both frequency and intensity have decreased. Global Accumulated Cyclone Energy [ACE] is currently near the lowest recorded levels in history.

        There are many paleoclimate papers demonstrating that cyclones are more common during cold periods than warm. I linked to one above

        http://hockeyschtick.blogspot.com/2013/11/new-paper-finds-pacific-cyclone.html

        and here are several others:

        http://hockeyschtick.blogspot.com/search?q=cyclone+reconstructs

        Most climate models predict a decrease in cyclone activity with warming. The reason is that warming reduces temperature gradients between the equator and poles, as well as vertically through the atmosphere. It is the gradient rather than the absolute warmth that drives storms. That’s why more storms occur during cold periods and the models predict fewer storms with warming.

        In sum, the observations, paleo data, theory, and models all support the position that if global warming continues, a more benign climate with less cyclone activity will result.

  3. Nullius in Verba says:

    “Quibble with that if you must. But the reality is that the oceans in fact are warming. And warmer oceans fuel stronger hurricanes”

    Hurricanes, like any heat engine, depend on temperature differences. The amount of energy that can be transformed into useful work (i.e. motion), is bounded by the Carnot efficiency (1 – T_cold / T_hot). A hurricane is driven by the temperature difference between the ocean surface and the upper atmosphere, and naturally if the ocean is warmer while the atmosphere stays the same, there is more energy available to drive winds. But if the upper atmosphere was to warm faster than the surface, which according to the climate models it should do, then there could potentially be less energy available. If polar amplification warms the cool parts of the world faster, then storms generally ought to get less violent.

    It turns out that the models are incorrect and the upper atmosphere is not warming as fast as predicted, which is arguably bad news. However, it doesn’t seem to have had any effect on the hurricanes, which are, if anything, declining. This is probably because there are many far more significant factors in their occurrence, and the effect of the very slight temperature increase is lost in the noise.

    But whatever the state of the science might be, simply exploiting tragedy for the political ends of getting action on global warming is increasingly seen as dubious behaviour, and may be counterproductive. Enough people are aware of the campaigner’s need to establish an emotional ‘hook’, and of the lack of any scientific connection that, even with the caveats about the connection being unproved, to invoke them in the same sentence is still seen as trying to establish an unjustified association.

    “Some have used a basketball analogy: Raise the floor of the court without affecting the 10-foot height of the rim, and you get more slam dunks.”

    But what makes you think the height of the rim would be unaffected?

    Alluvial flood plains and river deltas are so close to sea level for a reason. Water carries sediment for as long as it moves fast enough, and drops it when it slows, as it does on reaching sea level. The height of the land is controlled by sea level, so as the sea rises, so must the land.

    In any case, land reclamation is well-established technology, and modern cities built on the water’s edge are often expanding rather than shrinking. We can do something about it, if we choose.

    • David Appell says:

      But if the upper atmosphere was to warm faster than the surface, which according to the climate models it should do, then there could potentially be less energy available.

      Energy content depends not just on temperature, but mass density and specific heat as well. A change in temperature in the ocean represents about 1,000 times more energy than does the same temperature change in the atmosphere.

      • Nullius in Verba says:

        But that’s true whether the temperature difference is large or small. It’s the same ocean, either way. It means that only the top few metres can give up its heat before the atmosphere is saturated.

        To take an extreme example, consider an ocean at +10 C with an atmosphere at -10 C – lots of energy is available. Now consider an ocean at +15 C and an atmosphere at +15 C – no energy is available, although the ocean is warmer.

        • David Appell says:

          It means that only the top few metres can give up its heat before the atmosphere is saturated.

          So? There is a huge amount of heat in the top few meters of the ocean. And a huge amount of ocean under it.

          The heat capacity of the ocean is about 1,000 times larger than that of the atmosphere. So a change in heat content of the atmosphere would produce, if it occurred in the ocean, produce a temperature change only about 1/1000 as much.

          • Nullius in Verba says:

            Perfectly true, but that doesn’t make any difference to the point I was making, which is that the *available* energy depends on the temperature difference, and the atmosphere warming more than the oceans reduces this difference.

            Imagine if you will that we dig a hole near to the ocean and connect it via a channel to the sea, with a turbine in it. Water flows from the sea into the hole, driving the turbine, until the hole fills up. The amount of energy available is proportional to the depth of the hole – i.e. the difference in water level between the hole and the sea. It doesn’t actually matter that the oceans contain a huge amount of gravitational potential energy with respect to the level in the hole, because this is not available to be extracted. It doesn’t matter that every millimetre change in depth of the ocean corresponds to many metres change in depth in the hole. If the water in the hole is less deep, closer to sea level, then there will be less energy available to drive the turbine.

            Just as the areas of ocean and hole are fixed, so the heat capacities of ocean and atmosphere are fixed.

    • David Appell says:

      The height of the land is controlled by sea level, so as the sea rises, so must the land.

      But that is a very long-term process, and does not occur on anything like the time scale needed to save coastal cities from being inundated.

      • Nullius in Verba says:

        The land has to rise at least as fast as the sea, or it would have been inundated already.

        It’s actually an equilibrium. The land expands until the erosion rate of the extended coastline matches the deposition rate from the rivers. Since sea level has been rising over the past few century-and-a-half, the land area will have reached equilibrium with that rate. If the rate of rise accelerates, the land will shrink. But a constant rate of rise will result in a roughly constant land area.

        • David Appell says:

          The land has to rise at least as fast as the sea, or it would have been inundated already.

          Some of the land *is* being inundated — ask Norfolk, VA, or islands in the western Pacific.

          If the rate of rise accelerates, the land will shrink. But a constant rate of rise will result in a roughly constant land area.

          Not at all — it depends on both the erosion rate and the sea-level rate.

          • Nullius in Verba says:

            Land is dynamic – some of it is being eroded or inundated, other parts are being deposited or exposed. If the rate at which land was able to rise could not exceed the rate of sea level rise, it would be impossible for new land to be formed anywhere – and yet in many places it is.

            The factors affecting land formation are complicated, and I don’t pretend to understand all the details myself. But it is most certainly more complicated than just looking at where the land is now, and assuming that it will stay the same while the sea rises around it.

            Roughly speaking, a river dumps a volume V of sediment each year on an area of land A, raising it by a height V/A. If V stays roughly constant, the rate of rise is inversely proportional to the area. If the rate increases then the area has to shrink, but a constant rate of rise corresponds to a constant land area.

            The erosion rate changes the numbers but doesn’t change the principle – if the erosion rate is similarly constant (proportional to the coastline length, say) then the net amount dumped is V – E, and the height increase (V – E)/A.