Environmental historians and aging environmental journalists (no pointing of fingers called for here) can well remember how a single dramatic event, amplified by media, can lead to passage of a new law and, more importantly, to an expanded public mindset. Experts refer to those as “focusing events.”

There’s of course the example of the burning of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River and the impact news of those flames had on passage of landmark pollution control legislation in the U.S. in the early 70s, including the Clean Water Act. There’s the headline-grabbing attention given to upper New York State’s Love Canal and of the Union Carbide Bhopal, India, tragedy … and the added momentum given by them to passage of the Superfund law and of its community right-to-know law. There’s the influence of fouled Mississippi River drinking water as measured in Louisiana … and adoption of the Safe Drinking Water Act. There’s the London and Donora, Pennsylvania, smog emergencies … and eventually the Clean Air Act. The alar on apples and the “60 Minutes” scoop. And the BP spill in the Gulf, with the continuous live-shot of glop gushing. (Query whether that’s yet had the “focusing” impact many might think justified.)


The list could go on, and it’s not just in the environmental field that a singular notable event can trigger congressional and/or public action. Think of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas 50 Novembers ago (on the 22nd to be exact) and the rise of a southern and Texan politician, Lyndon B. Johnson, to the presidency, and, of course, to passage of the Civil Rights Act. Talk about a focusing event!

So we now have the international heartbreak of Typhoon Haiyan and the loss of thousands of lives in a town the vast majority of Americans for sure had never heard of, Tacloban in the Philippines. The horror of what is widely described as recorded history’s most intense storm ever to strike land came just as representatives of 190 nations were/are meeting in Warsaw in an effort to advance global efforts to combat climate change.

Source: Yahoo News (Reuters)

But does that mean history will repeat itself? Will Tacloban and Haiyan precipitate the logical follow-up to Kyoto? Will Tacloban and Kaiyan be another shot across the bow, like Love Canal? Or another blank, like BP?

Not to be overly pessimistic … but don’t hold your breath for the former.

Ask yourself today just how many Americans, after all of the media coverage of this nightmare, can properly spell “Haiyan.” Or, for that matter, “Tacloban”? How about just pronounce the terms, let alone go quickly to either on a map of the world. Hundreds upon hundreds killed in a devastating storm in Oklahoma or Idaho or Missouri? Expect the Congress, and even the House of Representatives, to show a pulse, jump on it. But the same number dead from a “natural disaster” in an area unknown to most Americans — and to most of their law makers? Hmmm.

The story itself has all of the markers that current communications researchers and theorists — if not yet practitioners — say it needs to command public attention, interest, and perhaps even action.

Drama? Check. Just look into the eyes of those innocent Filipino storm survivors as they look into the eye of the cameras and beg for food, for clean water, for survival.

Emotion? Check. Think of the Philippines’ lead negotiator, Yeb Saño, addressing the Warsaw conclave: “…looks tired. He speaks softly, hands clasped together, his voice occasionally cracking with emotion,” one blogger posted from the Polish capital. The “emotional appeal was met with a standing ovation,” Associated Press reported: Haiyan “cast a gloom over U.N. climate talks” and Saño “broke down in tears,” and more than a few hardnosed international negotiators were similarly reduced to tears.

A human face on the issue? Check. That of a child, now stilled. Or that of a forlorn parent, now suddenly childless. Or, for those involved personally in the Warsaw talks, that of Saño, now fasting to protest what he called the “madness” of a warming climate.

“We can stop this madness right here in Warsaw,” Saño implored his fellow negotiators, even as U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres asked them to “go that extra mile” in light of the timely and timeless reminder of risk. But will they?

Ah. Reality, with a dose of caution too, sets in. Apparently not one to get too ahead of the evolving evidence-based scientific thinking, Saño was reported as acknowledging continuing challenges in scientifically attributing to climate change a specific weather event. At the same time, he reminded all of us, “The physics is quite simple, that if you have warming oceans it will generate storms, especially intense storms.”

Quibble with that if you must. But the reality is that the oceans in fact are warming. And warmer oceans fuel stronger hurricanes (or cyclones or typhoons, all three words have the same physical meaning, and the terms connote only the geography of the storm, nothing about the event itself).

Much of the “mainstream” media reporting on Tacloban (Is it with a “c” or with a “k”? you might be excused for having to remind yourself.) also appeared reluctant to draw a clear line between any single storm and climate change, while also adding some critical nuance to the point.

“Scientists remain cautious” and “There is not enough data,” reporters Henry Fountain and Justin Gillis reported for The New York Times November 12. They quoted MIT storms expert Kerry A. Emanuel as saying it’s still “impossible to find out” when it comes to an individual storm. And they also reported NOAA/National Climatic Data Center atmospheric scientist James P. Kissin as saying “The data suggests that things like this will be more frequent with global warming.” And saying “When you strip everything else away, we’re seeing a general rise in sea level. There’s no question that storm surge is going to be compounded.”

Source: Weather.com

In its November 12 story, A.P. reported that notwithstanding all the proper scientific caveats, “extreme weather such as hurricanes often prompt calls for urgency” at U.N. talks. But it concluded, all the same, that “no major decisions” are expected from the Warsaw talks.

The Philippines’ Saño too was reported as being “under no illusions that one storm will change what has become a set of convoluted, tough, and often bitter negotiations.”

No, for those wondering, he was not there referring to the halls of our U.S. Congress.

The half empty/half full nature of it all is perhaps summarized in the headline for Time blogger Bryan Walsh’s November 11 post: “Climate Change Didn’t Cause Supertyphoon Haiyan. But the Storm is Still a Reason to Fight Global Warming.”

Walsh pointed out in that posting that IPCC’s September 2013 Working Group I Fifth Assessment Report found “‘low confidence in attribution of changes in tropical cyclone activity to human influence’ so far.” And “low confidence” also in prospects for increased tropical cyclones over the next few decades … along more than a 50/50 chance of more by 2100. (That’s a “step-back” from the 2007 IPCC estimate, Walsh noted.)

Then too, there’s the sea-level rise issue. Walsh wrote that higher seas mean higher surge and more flooding. (Some have used a basketball analogy: Raise the floor of the court without affecting the 10-foot height of the rim, and you get more slam dunks.) “But given the fact that Haiyan’s storm surges were as much as 20 feet, climate-driven sea-level rise wouldn’t have been the deciding factor in the supertyphoon’s devastation,” he wrote.

Which does not mean that a warmer world won’t put more devastating typhoons — hurricanes, cyclones, call them what you will — in our future.

So back to the prospects that Haiyan and Tacloban may be the proverbial straw breaking the ironclad back of climate science contrarians on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. What say ye?

Long-time climate activist Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists perhaps put it best: “Never have the stakes been higher with expectations so low.”

In the end, it likely will take even more than the haunting devastation of a place few Americans can find on a map, by a storm with a name fewer yet will long remember, to prompt a meaningful international, let alone national, policy response.

And this, one might dare say, is not yet that “end.” Whether it someday may be seen as the beginning of the end, no one can yet possibly know. To be continued.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is Editor of Yale Climate Connections. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as Assistant Director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission on Air Quality,...