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Typhoon Haiyan, Climate Change and Security in the Asia-Pacific

Typhoon_Haiyan_2013_making_landfallTyphoon Haiyan (or Yolanda as it is known locally) slammed into the Philippines on November 7th. According to the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, it was “thought to be the strongest storm to ever make landfall anywhere in the world in modern records.” The typhoon wreaked havoc on a disastrous scale, affecting over four million people and killing as many as 10,000 to date.  Some have asked whether or not it is necessary to create a new category of storm to capture the magnitude of the typhoon, much as Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology recently created the category of “deep purple” to account for unprecedented highs in temperature.

While the Philippines is no stranger to extreme weather – just this August floods led to the closure of government buildings, schools and banks across the Cavite and Laguna provinces – and while it may be difficult to connect any one storm to climate change, there is mounting evidence suggesting that a warming ocean may be responsible for more intense storms of this kind. In an article last Friday on why “Supertyphoon” Haiyan was such an unusual storm, Colin Price, a Professor in Atmospheric Sciences states:

“All typhoons feed off the warm ocean waters,” he said. The moisture-laden air above these regions is the fuel that fires the engines in these storms…We’ve seen in the past decades the oceans are warming up, likely due to climate change,” said Price. “So warmer oceans will give us more energy for these storms, likely resulting in more intense storms.”

But it’s not just atmospheric scientists who are concerned about the effects of climate change in the region. When the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), Admiral Samuel Locklear, was asked “what is the biggest long-term security threat in the Pacific region?” he responded by saying that upheaval related to climate change:

“is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen . . . that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.’’

In response to the typhoon, PACOM, in coordination with partners in the U.S. government from USAID and the State Department (among others), the European Commission, the United Kingdom, the UN and numerous aid organizations, are indeed on the front lines of assisting with disaster response. The U.S. military’s role in the effort is evolving, though the Department of Defense recently released a statement noting that:

The support, provided at the request of the Philippines government, will initially focus on surface maritime search and rescue, medium-heavy helicopter lift support, airborne maritime SAR, fixed-wing lift support and logistics enablers, officials said.

The statement also quoted Admiral Locklear

“It’s the right thing to do,” particularly in light of frequent and often devastating natural disasters that strike across the region…Also, if something is going to happen in the Pacific that is going to create a churn in the security environment, the most likely thing will be a humanitarian disaster problem of some kind – whether it is horrific typhoons or tsunamis or floods or something else.”

PACOM and the Philippine military have held joint exercises focused on disaster response and humanitarian assistance.  These exercises are critical for preparing for the kind of humanitarian relief operation underway now. When asked why the U.S. military is concerned about climate change, one need look no further than this situation.

Typhoon Haiyan passed over cities with populations in the millions. Population growth, urbanization and increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events mean that disasters of this magnitude may not be as unusual as they once were. Our military leaders are preparing for such a future, and our elected leaders should too. Millions of lives depend on it.

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