Typhoon Haiyan, a storm of historic proportions, has devastated the largely impoverished population of the Philippines. Thousands of people are dead, hundreds of thousands are stranded with almost no food or water, and millions have been impacted. The struggle to survive competes with the race to bury the dead, treat the wounded and suffer through the onslaught of tropical storms in Haiyan's wake. In seeming synchrony, halfway around the world, thousands of negotiators, scientists, politicians and journalists are gathering for the annual United Nations Climate Change summit, held this year in Warsaw, Poland. The changing seas that this week have whipped the Philippines demand a sea change in the worldwide response to global warming.
As "COP 19" opened in Warsaw - the 19th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol - one courageous climate negotiator took center stage, demanding action on climate change.
"What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness," said Naderev "Yeb" Sano, representing the typhoon-ravaged Philippines, as the summit opened. "We can stop this madness right here in Warsaw." This was not his first appeal to the U.N. body. Last year, when the summit was in Doha, Qatar, and not long after Typhoon Bopha killed 1,100 people in the Philippines, Sano implored the gathered negotiators, holding back tears: "The outcome of our work is not about what our political masters want. It is about what is demanded of us by 7 billion people. I appeal to all: Please, no more delays, no more excuses. Please, let Doha be remembered as the place where we found the political will to turn things around."
Doha did not turn things around. Report after report reinforces the science: Catastrophic climate change is accelerating. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the association of more than 1,800 scientists that is leading the global study of climate change, and which shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore in 2007, recently released its fifth assessment report. With increasing certainty, the IPCC reports, the climate is changing, and humans are the cause.
Jeff Masters is a meteorologist and founder of the popular weather website Weather Underground. Unlike most U.S.-based television weather forecasters, who rarely link extreme weather events to climate change, Masters regularly makes the connection. He said on "Democracy Now!" news hour, "The proportion of these sorts of high-end Category 5 storms has increased ... when we do get them there's a higher proportion of them coming in at these super-high intensities." Masters and the IPCC point out that no individual weather event can be directly attributed to climate change, but that the frequency and intensity of the storms will increase.
While the science is dry and peer-reviewed, the reality on the ground is grim and deadly. Typhoon Haiyan (which is called Yolanda in the Philippines) is the latest, epic example. Superstorm Sandy, one year ago, hit New Jersey and New York City, shutting down one of the largest cities on the planet.
It's too soon to call the U.N. climate summit in Warsaw a failure. Earnest negotiators have gathered in Poland, alongside activists both inside the National Stadium, where the conference is being held, and outside, in the streets. Activists from Greenpeace called attention to Poland's intense dependence on coal-fueled power plants by projecting messages onto the huge smokestacks stating "Climate Change Starts Here." At the same time, 28 other Greenpeace activists face seven years in prison in Russia for protesting the first exploratory oil-drilling rig in the Arctic. The two journalists covering them face the same charges.
Many consider Warsaw just a steppingstone to the climate summit planned for Paris in 2015, conceding that immediate action is not possible. Why? At the climate summit in 2011, in Durban, South Africa, a representative of the youth delegation addressed the closing plenary, expressing frustration with the slow progress. Anjali Appadurai said: "You've been negotiating all my life. ... Long-term thinking is not radical. What's radical is to completely alter the planet's climate, to betray the future of my generation, and to condemn millions to death by climate change. What's radical is to write off the fact that change is within our reach."
Yeb Sano is not giving up, either on his family, many of whom were directly hit by Typhoon Haiyan, or on the process. As he closed his statement at the opening session in Warsaw this week, he announced, "I will now commence a voluntary fasting for the climate ... during this COP, until a meaningful outcome is in sight."
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.