Will Typhoon Haiyan spur progress at UN climate talks?

The unfolding tragedy in the Philippines may keep UN climate talks, the latest round of which began this week in Warsaw, from getting bogged down in national concerns.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters
Naderev Sano, the Philippines' climate commissioner, speaks to the media as he begins a voluntary fast during UN climate talks in Warsaw today. Mr. Sano began a fast on Monday in protest at a lack of action on global warming that he blamed for fueling a super typhoon that has killed an estimated 10,000 people in his country.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

The words “UN climate talks” can make the eyes of the most optimistic environmentalist glaze over.

But Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines jolted delegates to their feet the first day of the two-week talks in Warsaw, Poland, on Monday.

The envoy to the Philippines broke down in tears on the opening day, declaring a fast until a "meaningful outcome is in sight," said Naderev "Yeb" Sano, according to the Associated Press.

"We can fix this. We can stop this madness. Right now, right here," Mr. Sano said, choking on his words, as he shared his anguish as he waited for news of his family's fate.

Some 10,000 are estimated to have lost their lives in Typhoon Haiyan, described as the most powerful typhoon to make landfall in history.

"In solidarity with my countrymen who are struggling to find food back home . . . I will now commence a voluntary fasting for the climate," he said. "This means I will voluntarily refrain from eating food during this [conference] until a meaningful outcome is in sight." The conference lasts until Nov. 22.

"I speak for the countless people who will no longer be able to speak for themselves,” he added, according to Agence France-Presse

Sano received a standing ovation from members, who hail from 190 countries meeting to attempt to chart a path against global warming. The UN aims for such a pact to be signed in Paris in 2015.

The latest talks are part of a long, drawn-out, and often contentious process of meetings from Rio de Janiero, to Durban, South Africa, to Copenhagen. The BBC writes that the talks in Poland mark the 19th annual Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 

It is not scientifically certain that global warming is behind individual weather events. As The New York Times explains here:

“Whether we’re seeing some result of climate change, we find that impossible to find out,” said Kerry A. Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at M.I.T.

Scientists largely agree that it appears that storms will become more powerful as the climate changes. Dr. Emanuel helped write a 2010 study, for example, that forecast that the average intensity of hurricanes and typhoons — different names for the same phenomenon — would increase by up to 11 percent by the end of the century.

But the devastation of the typhoon brought real-life tangibles to talks that often get bogged down by national interests and can seem worlds away from the life of ordinary citizens.

Olai Ngedikes, lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), issued a statement saying: “The tragic aftermath of Supertyphoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms in history, serves as a stark reminder of the cost of inaction on climate change and should serve to motivate our work in Warsaw.”

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres talked of the "devastating impact" of the typhoon in her opening speech, according to the AP, as she asked the participants to “go that extra mile" in their negotiations.

And, Dessima Williams, a former AOSIS chairwoman, said in an interview with the Times that, “The scale of the response in the talks must match with what is clearly an escalating situation."

Now the question is whether these emotional appeals will resonate into something tangible, two weeks from now.

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