Storm warning: Is the deadly typhoon a sign of climate change?


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Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines last Friday, was one of the strongest storms ever to hit the archipelago. Some 10,000 are reported to have died and the destruction is apocalyptic. The world should be moved to a major humanitarian response.

But the world should have a different concern because a storm this big invites a bigger question. Is this simply another episode of violent weather, or is it linked to global climate change? Unfortunately, science cannot pronounce on the genesis of every storm. The truth lies in long-term trends, and those trends are disquieting.

Climate change theory predicts extreme weather events, and anyone who reads the news can find regular examples. The most dramatic recent case in the United States was Hurricane Sandy, just past the one-year anniversary of its devastation to parts of New York City and the Jersey Shore.

Sandy illustrated a problem that goes beyond wind and rain -- storm surges. Over the past century, sea level at New York City has risen about a foot, higher than the global average, as measured by a gauge near Battery Park. As the planet warms and sea levels rise, big storms have a head start on flooding the nearby land.

The problem is not unique to New York -- other American cities are vulnerable, too. Since 23 of the 25 most densely populated counties in the nation are on the coast, the potential for catastrophe cannot be shrugged off.

While many in Congress continue to shrug, government leaders who live near the water are coming to understand the threat. New York has absorbed the lessons of Sandy. Now south Florida is doing the same. As The New York Times reports, four counties -- Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach -- have formed an alliance to try to protect themselves.

But engineering can do only so much when oceans continue to rise, especially in a state such as Florida that is a few feet above sea level. The problem is fossil fuel use, and that needs to be addressed. As it happens, the Philippines typhoon, which had a storm surge of up to 20 feet, came while a United Nations meeting on climate was starting in Warsaw, Poland.

Although scientists may debate whether this latest superstorm was climate change-related, the tearful Filipino envoy, Naderev "Yeb" Sano, had no doubt. "We can fix this. We can stop this madness. Right now, right here," he said. Actually, we can't -- not while so many refuse to take the heavy-handed hints that nature may be dropping.


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