Natural disasters in Philippines make it a poster child for urgent action on climate change

MANILA, Philippines – When Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the central Philippines two years ago, flattening entire villages and killing thousands, the country became a poster child for the havoc wrought by global warming and increasingly extreme weather.

French President Francoise Holland travelled early this year to the devastated town of Guiuan, ground zero of the strongest cyclone ever to make landfall, to show the world the damage and appeal for an ambitious deal at global climate change talks in Paris at the end of this month.

Leaders of the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum gathered this week in the Philippine capital Manila could help set the stage for greater progress in mitigating climate change ahead of the Nov. 30 Paris conference. It was at the summit of APEC leaders in Beijing last November that the world’s top polluters, the United States and China, agreed to more ambitious goals to cap the carbon dioxide emissions blamed for global warming.

That was an important step, but China and the U.S. need to double or triple those efforts, said Saleem Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh and an advisor to least developed countries in the U.N. climate change talks.

“They have to raise the level of their ambition definitely and if they can do that, the rest of the world will follow,” he said. Vulnerable countries such as the Philippines need to raise their voices urging them to do that, he said.

APEC host Philippine President Benigno Aquino urged faster and bolder change.

In the Philippines each year, 337 days are “heat stress” days, according to the World Health Organization, making the country one of the world’s most vulnerable to climate catastrophes.

“The message simply put is we all have to do the most that we can because this really is a situation where we are running out of time to be able to stop an irreversible situation,” Aquino told a conference of business leaders held on the sidelines of the APEC gathering.

Alan Bollard, executive director of the APEC Secretariat, said it is unclear if the leaders will specifically discuss the upcoming Paris talks. But their agenda includes various initiatives such as energy efficiency, meeting a 2015 deadline to cut tariffs on 54 “green goods” including solar panels and wind turbines to below 5 per cent, and promoting carbon “model cities.”

APEC members are also studying ways to cope better with increasingly frequent and severe typhoons, flooding, droughts and other climate change-related disasters.

Senior disaster management officials at a meeting in the central Philippines in September introduced a new APEC framework on disaster risk reduction to guide policy co-ordination within APEC, help prevent disasters and improve preparedness, response, rehabilitation and rebuilding.

Natural disasters cost APEC members more than $100 billion over the past decade.

In a study of world cities threatened by natural disasters, risk analysis company Verisk Maplecroft included eight Philippine cities among the 10 most exposed to hazards such as earthquakes, typhoons, severe storms and landslides. Manila was ranked fourth, behind provincial cities, Tuguegarao, 2nd, and Lucena, 3rd.

Weak capacity to manage, respond and recover from natural disasters is compounding the risks, the report said.

Earthquakes and volcanoes are beyond human control. Global warming, less so.

Forty-three of the countries most vulnerable to climate change met in Manila last week and urged governments to commit to keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees centigrade, saying the 2 degree centigrade global goal will would not ensure survival of island nations that may be inundated.

“We recognize the urgency for an ambitious, universal, legally binding, dynamic and durable agreement,” the Climate Vulnerable Forum said in a statement.