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Analysis: Is climate change causing disasters like Typhoon Haiyan?

Even modest sea level rise will make disasters much stronger, says leading climate change expert.

Downed power lines and debris block the road in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan on November 10, 2013 in Tacloban, Leyte, Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan, packing maximum sustained winds of 195 mph (315 kph), slammed into the southern Philippines and left a trail of destruction in multiple provinces, forcing hundreds of thousands to evacuate and making travel by air and land to hard-hit provinces difficult. Around 10,000 people are feared dead in the strongest typhoon to hit the Philippines this year. Credit: Getty Images Downed power lines and debris block the road in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan on Nov. 10 in Tacloban, Leyte, Philippines. Credit: Getty Images

As yet another natural disaster claims thousands of lives, people are asking whether we’re facing the consequences of climate change.

Not yet, says Johan Kuylenstierna, a leading climate change expert and executive director of the Stockholm Environment Institute: The big impact of climate change is yet to come.

Metro: Are natural disasters like the typhoon in the Philippines increasing in number, and becoming more devastating, because of climate change?

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Kuylenstierna: Right now there’s no direct correlation between climate change and the frequency of natural disasters like Typhoon Haiyan. However, if we look at predictions, it’s clear that disasters of this kind will increase, and a warmer climate gives more intensity to storms.

What’s important to remember, though, is that the impact depends on things like infrastructure and population size. In the Philippines many people live in inadequate housing in low-lying areas, so they’re more exposed to disasters. And due to population growth, many more people were affected by this typhoon than would have been the case 50 years ago. Half a century ago, the death toll would have been lower.

Should people living in industrialized countries be worried, too?

Yes. If sea levels rise by 10 or 50 centimeters, natural disasters will have a huge impact, since so many cities are located in coastal areas. But cities in the industrialized world are much better equipped to handle storms. The financial cost of Superstorm Sandy was as much, or even more, than the typhoon in the Philippines, but the cost in human lives was much smaller. The upside of preparing for climate change and more natural disasters is that we’ll get infrastructure that’s more robust, whether or not we’re hit by a storm.

 
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