As Typhoon Hagupit heads out of Philippines, did climate change play a role?

Published: 8 December 2014 9:50 CET

By Maarten van Aalst, Climate Centre Director, in Lima

For the third year in a row – almost unbelievably – UN climate talks have coincided with a severe typhoon striking the Philippines, concentrating minds and debate alike at the annual COP meeting.

Here on the second day of the Development and Climate Days (“D&C Days”) event at this year’s talks in the Peruvian capital, Lima, we heard an impassioned plea from Susan Santos de Cardenas (photo) – CEO of the Philippine Society for Sustainable Tourism Development – for the international community to do more to make climate services and knowledge available “at the grassroots level”.

“Many people in my country don’t even know what a storm surge is,” Cardenas told some 200 D&C Days participants in a contribution to a session on integrating climate change with development programming, moderated by Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and a D&C Days regular.

“We’ve been muddling along like this for decades,” she said. “Now everyone knows what a daluyong [storm surge] is, but mainly because of Haiyan – we should have had this information much sooner.”

But what does climate science actually say about the lethal series of typhoons that have hit the Philippines in recent years?


After what was by far the most destructive storm, Typhoon Haiyan last year, the World Meteorological Organization took what is still the relatively unusual step of quickly pointing a finger at climate change in connection with a single extreme-weather event.

“Although individual tropical cyclones cannot be directly attributed to climate change, higher sea levels are already making coastal populations more vulnerable to storm surges,” WMO Secretary General Michel Jarraud said before the 2013 UN climate talks in Warsaw, adding, “We saw this with tragic consequences in the Philippines.”

The reports from the Philippines that we’re reading here in Lima are that storm surges this year were not as high as with Haiyan.

With the eye of the storm still in the middle of the archipelago early Monday local time, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administrationcontinued to warn of ‘big waves associated with storm surge which may reach up to three metres’ in parts.

We’ll have to wait and see just how significant a factor storm surges were with this typhoon. But equally, the science now strongly indicates that any damage storm surges may have caused in Typhoon Hagupit was worse than it would have been without climate change.

Climate scientists are making rapid progress on what we call “attribution”; that is, making clear statements about whether a particular extreme event is – or just as importantly is not – getting more likely due to climate change.

An important new development is that we can now sometimes provide these answers within days of an event rather than months, or even years, later via academic literature.

Storm surges

At the recent UN Climate Summit in New York, IFRC Secretary General Elhadj As Sy committed to ‘systematically communicating to the general public about the role of climate change in major disasters.’

The strand of extreme-weather events where science provides the strongest indications of rising risk due to climate change is, of course, heatwaves – as the IPCC’s latest assessment report again affirmed.

For some other extreme events, in particular tropical cyclones, there is not yet such clarity. But as the WMO said last year, storm surges whipped up by cyclones do include a clear element of climate change because of rising sea levels.

And that brings the humanitarian realities back to the negotiations here in Lima, where country delegates are struggling with language for a climate deal to be agreed in Paris next year, including emissions, adaptation, and loss and damage related to now-unavoidably rising risks.