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Counting the Cost of Climate Disasters: What do Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan Tell Us About What the U.S. and the Philippines Have in Common?

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Angela Anderson, Director of the UCS Climate and Energy program, is in Warsaw for the latest round of international climate talks. In the political wake of typhoon Haiyan, she sent me this urgent dispatch about why developed and developing nations alike must consider the costs of climate impacts. And why she’s joined other activists who are fasting in solidarity with the Philippines’ chief negotiator:

The harrowing images now on the news from the Philippines evoke painful memories for many in the United States who found themselves in Hurricane Sandy’s path a year ago. Together, those two events show us just how much we share with people around the globe facing worsening climate impacts, but the response to both events also shows us how different we are.

The aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban city, central Philippines,  November 10th 2013. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro. www.mansunides.org

The aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban city, central Philippines, November 10 2013. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro. www.mansunides.org

At a recent event in New Jersey, citizens gathered to assess our national reaction to Sandy: the effectiveness of the emergency response; progress on rebuilding; and how to manage for future risks. In the Philippines they are still in those terrible first days of response to the disaster. On TV, we watch the U.S. military delivering humanitarian aid to help in this effort, but what happens when the first responder phase is over and the rebuilding begins? In the U.S., citizens of New York and New Jersey were outraged how long it took Congress’ to approve $50 billion in disaster relief. But one has to wonder just how big a bill the Philippine government is going to face once the costs to rebuilding entire cities are calculated. It is almost certain to be more than it can pay.

Warsaw climate negotiators struggling to address ‘loss and damage’ issues

Here at the annual global meeting on climate change in Warsaw, Poland (UNFCCC COP 19), nations are grappling with the question of how to work together to address many aspects of global warming, including the ‘loss and damage’ that results from climate change. The Filipino chief climate negotiator, Yeb Saño, whose hometown was devastated by Typhoon Haiyan, opened the event with an impassioned plea for this meeting to deliver an unexpected but urgently needed breakthrough in international cooperation on climate. He pledged to fast until a substantial agreement was reached. Many of the participants from observer organizations like UCS agreed to join him in that effort and when I arrived in Warsaw, I also had to decide whether to join the fast.

NASA image of Hurricane Sandy. Credit: NASA/GSFC/William Putman

NASA image of Hurricane Sandy. Photo: NASA/GSFC/William Putman

At the Warsaw negotiations, delegates are discussing ways to improve international coordination and help countries like the Philippines access the financial resources and capacity needed to cope with ‘loss and damage’ results from climate change impacts. But over the weekend, negotiators failed to agree on a proposal to address loss and damage, and this, coupled with the lack of progress on the long-term finance promised four years ago in Copenhagen, prompted some of world’s poorest countries, along with rapidly emerging economies like China, to threaten to walk away from negotiations.

The dispute at the heart of the loss and damage discussion comes down to this: Should developed countries ‘compensate’ poorer countries for the damages they are dealing with that are the result of decades of carbon emissions they didn’t emit? Also at stake seems to be a question of whether the best way to manage an international response to the damages caused by climate change is through a new entity or through better coordination of existing international cooperation organizations.

These details matter a great deal to government lawyers and politicians. But they don’t mean a thing to the victims of Hurricane Sandy or Typhoon Haiyan. In the same way that New York and New Jersey felt like their help was being held up by politicians hoping to score points on deficit reduction, poor countries simply want certainty that a secure system of support will be there when disaster strikes their shores.

Fasting for the climate

Will Yeb Saño’s fasting, along with hundreds of activists joining in solidarity, change the minds of the U.S. and other negotiators? I don’t know. But I do know that in the U.S., communities around the country are coming to grips with their own issues of loss and damage. For now, those communities are looking to their own resources and abilities to make themselves more resilient. But they too will likely eventually see the need for a secure and predictable source of funding for resilience and that help will have to come from the federal government.

Fasting Phiippines negotiator, Yeb Saño, and supporters deliver a petition at the Warsaw climate talks. Credit: Emma Bierman/350.org

Fasting Philippines negotiator, Yeb Saño and his supporters deliver a petition at the Warsaw climate talks.
Photo: Emma Bierman/350.org

President Obama’s Climate Action Plan begins to outline ways that federal, state, and local agencies can coordinate their efforts on climate resilience. They are good first steps and will provide the communications channel between these branches of government that is much needed. But we do not have domestically a system to fund our own climate change driven ‘loss and damage.’ And we probably don’t yet have the political support to demand that one gets created. Perhaps once citizens across the United States begin clamoring for help with ‘loss and damage’ the calls of other nations won’t fall on such deaf ears.

So I have decided to join the fast. I’m fasting for those communities that will be the first and the worst hurt from climate change – both at home and abroad. I’m fasting to remind myself to be thankful for the abundance most of us enjoy as Americans and to remember those who have much less. I’m fasting to rededicate myself to changing the politics of denial in America that dangerously resists the move to a low-carbon economy and pretends we won’t face the consequences.

I’m fasting to add my heart to the fight for climate action that I’ve so far only fought with my head. I’m #FastingForTheClimate.

Angela Anderson, Climate and Energy Program Director, UCS. Warsaw, Poland, November 19 2013.

 

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About the author: Adam Markham directs the Union of Concerned Scientists’ special initiative on climate impacts. See Adam's full bio.

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