If you want to get a feel for the devastation in the Philippines, check out the before-and-after photos of Tacloban from the sky. One shot shows a thriving coastal city full of lights. In the next shot, the lights are gone. Most of the city has collapsed into a pile of rubble.
Bill McKibben knows where to lay the blame: global warming. Monday, the environmental activist sent out an e-mail soliciting relief support. Typhoon Haiyan was just the latest proof that climate inaction is ruining the world, he claimed. The usual environmental scaremongers also jumped on the disaster bandwagon.
The calamity has cast a pall on the latest climate-change meeting in Warsaw, where delegates are meeting for the umpteenth time in a futile effort to forge a global climate treaty. "What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness," said a tearful Naderev Sano, the representative from the Philippines. He has vowed to fast until "a meaningful outcome is in sight."
But climate change played no role in this disaster. The real villains are bad geography, poverty, a population boom and corrupt governments that have failed to invest in crucial infrastructure.
"The Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone places on Earth," Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, told The Associated Press. "They've got it all. They've got earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, tropical cyclones, landslides."
And they've got people – 100 million of them. The population has doubled since the 1980s. Forty per cent of Filipinos live on less than $2 a day, and millions live in vulnerable coastal zones. So the typhoon's devastation is no surprise. Flimsy buildings just collapsed, leaving an estimated half-million people without shelter, food or water. Because of government negligence, there aren't enough roads to get help to needy areas. A weak central government and chaos on the ground have further hampered relief efforts. Aid convoys have come under attack from desperate people and communist rebels.
In richer countries, natural catastrophes cause far less damage because everything works better. When Cyclone Yasi, another monster storm, hit Australia in 2011, people were evacuated early without a single direct fatality. But many poorer countries are also better prepared than they used to be. In 1970, after a devastating cyclone killed more than half a million people in Bangladesh, huge efforts went into developing early warnings, evacuation plans, coastal embankments and environmental measures to reduce storm damage. When another monster storm hit in 2007, the death toll was just over 4,000.
The lesson is obvious. If we really want to help people hit by natural disasters, we should help them invest in disaster preparedness and economic development. And no matter how you cut it, economic development requires greater energy use, not less.
Needless to say, this lesson is anathema to people who demand "climate justice." If they had their way, we'd all be living like poor Filipinos instead of the other way around. And a lot more of us would probably be in peril.
But for environmental demagogues like Mr. McKibben, images of catastrophe are just too good to resist, even without a shred of evidence. The IPCC itself says so – according to the latest summary report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "Current datasets indicate no significant observed trends in global tropical cyclone frequency over the past century." In other words, the type of typhoon activity afflicting the Philippines hasn't changed for 100 years.
With population still growing fast in poor and vulnerable parts of the world, natural disasters – floods, fire, hurricanes, earthquakes – are bound to summon our compassion for years to come. Climate activists do themselves no favours by using the victims for propaganda.