Historians may look back at Typhoon Haiyan as a turning point in disaster journalism and the politics of climate change. For the first time, an extreme-weather catastrophe in the tropics has shrugged off its “made in Asia” label and gone global.
Coverage of storms, floods and droughts usually begins and ends with war-zone style reporting about dire conditions on the ground. The raw numbers of the dead are interwoven with tragic personal histories of survivors who have lost homes and loved ones. The truism that a picture speaks a thousand words is most true of disaster journalism. With so many shocking scenes of destroyed homes, floating corpses and crying children, the ratio of images to words — already high in everyday reporting — skyrockets.
Collectively, these pictures insist on the specific locality of the disaster. Be it a tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia, floods in Pakistan or a Philippines typhoon, Asian disaster coverage is often, for those in the metropolitan media centers of the West, a window into a little-known region of the world. Thrill-seeking storm chasers checked into hotels in Tacloban, in the Philippines province of Leyte, in advance of the superstorm. We ordinary consumers of the news, meanwhile, trek vicariously through the ruins of its aftermath as disaster tourists, with star reporters as guides.
But just as the global climate system cares nothing for our nation-state borders, let alone the 24-hour news cycle, Haiyan is no longer a story exclusively about suffering Filipinos today.
Naderev Sano, a Filipino delegate to the annual United Nations climate convention in Warsaw, managed to penetrate the localized coverage after the typhoon last week with an emotional appeal for global action on climate change. His tearful speech, culminating in a resolution to go on hunger strike, was first captured not by the mainstream news media — its eye trained on Tacloban — but by amateur video uploaded on YouTube.
Sano made his point with the clear eyes of grief: He mourns the victims of Haiyan, while refusing food to protest the death sentence hanging over the victims of future Haiyans, an exponentially increasing death toll if global carbon emissions continue to rise unchecked.
Converging with coverage of Sano has been an above-average number of climatology experts claiming airtime on cable news. Their message: Sano is right. The ocean waters off the Philippines are the warmest at depth in the world and getting warmer at an unprecedented rate. Southeast Asia, by its physical geography, is prone to typhoons, and its peoples have long adapted to them. But these warmer waters — part of a global, coupled atmospheric-ocean system under increasing stress — are generating new superstorms that will erode human resilience.
Tougher building standards? Not enough. That last risk assessment you read? Tear it up. Haiyan is just the beginning of the new extreme weather regime our planet is entering, where storm surges routinely cut a swath through coastal populations, and regional economies get hammered. Disaster journalism won’t stay local. Now we get a lesson in climate science and our high-risk gamble with carbon waste.
Disasters in Southeast Asia have gone global before, as I learned in researching the eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia in 1815. Mount Tambora’s massive detonation, the largest in thousands of years, threw the global climate system into chaos. Crops failed from Indonesia to Ireland, and millions of desperate refugees poured into the cities. Famine-friendly diseases, typhus and cholera, spread like wildfire. In an ultimate measure of desperation, some parents killed their own children out of mercy (tales of post-Tambora filicide are told from Bali to China to Switzerland).
Even in the U.S., where a much-feared famine was largely averted, thousands of people fled the Tambora weather of freezing New England for the promised land of the frontier. Within a few short years a half-dozen states of the modern Midwest had been founded.
The lesson of Tambora? Climate change changes everything, and fast. The disaster of 1815-18 draws localized attention to a unique, physically vulnerable region of the world, while also forcing us to think about climate on a global scale. In Tambora’s case, the pulse of climate catastrophe rippled outward from a single mountaintop in Indonesia. The world never knew what hit it, and traumatic memories lived on only in local histories and folklore. The challenge in writing my book was to weave these local narratives into a global story, a task that only modern climate science makes possible.
Today, climate science, with its global mindset, is doing the same to shape the Typhoon Haiyan story. As extreme weather disasters multiply in the tropics and beyond, at what point will international humanitarian institutions be overwhelmed, and victims by the millions left to fend for themselves, as in the global climate crisis of 1815-18?
Closer to home, how soon will we no longer be mere spectators of disaster news, but feel the creeping chill of our own vulnerability to an imminent Super Sandy or Super Katrina?
Naderev Sano refuses “to accept a future where super typhoons like Haiyan become a way of life” and asks us to stand with the people of the Philippines in this time of crisis. As a global story, the Haiyan challenge is far greater: to make a stand for humanity’s future on a livable planet.
The alternative — a world of hundredfold Haiyans and exhausted human beings — is too gruesome to contemplate. As Lord Byron wrote in the aftermath of Tambora, when volcanic darkness descended on Europe, “men forgot their passions in the dread/Of this their desolation; and all hearts/Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light.”
Gillen D’Arcy Wood writes on the history of climate change. His book, Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World, will be published in April 2014.