UN Climate Change Conference: A cry for help

The devastation in the Philippines left in the wake of super typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 10,000 people, cast a dark shadow over the opening day of United Nations Climate Change Conference in Warsaw, Poland.

In his opening speech on Monday at the 19th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 19) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at the National Stadium in Warsaw, Marcin Korolec, Polish environment minister and newly elected president of the Conference of the Parties, said: "Only two days ago, a powerful typhoon swept through the Philippines, claiming thousands of lives, leaving hundreds of thousands of people displaced from their homes. A great human tragedy. Unforgettable, painful, awakening. I say awakening because it is yet another proof that we are losing this unequal struggle between man and nature. It got the better of us yet again, and will continue to do so in the future if we do not close ranks and act together to strike back."

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, likewise warned of inaction. "We must stay focused, exert maximum effort for the full time and produce a positive result, because what happens in this stadium is not a game. There are not two sides, but the whole of humanity. There are no winners and losers, we all either win or lose in the future we make for ourselves."

The Nov. 8 typhoon wiped out much of the Philippine city of Tacloban and killed more than 10,000 people on the surrounding island of Leyte.

In an emotional address that received a standing ovation, Philippine delegate Naderev Sano said, "The initial assessment shows that Haiyan left a wake of massive destruction that is unprecedented, unthinkable and horrific, and the devastation is staggering."

Sano added, "I speak for my delegation, but I speak for the countless people who will no longer be able to speak for themselves after perishing from the storm. I speak also for those who have been orphaned by the storm. … We can take drastic action now to ensure that we prevent a future where super typhoons become a way of life. … By failing to meet the objectives of the convention, we may have ratified our own doom."

Sano challenged conference leaders and delegate to make a difference: "Mr. President, this process has been called a farce, it has been called an annual carbon-intensive gathering of useless frequent flyers; it has also been called ‘saving tomorrow today.’"

In a tearful pleae, Sano called on the conference "to lead us and let Poland and Warsaw be remembered forever as the place where we truly cared to stop this madness."

Speaking later to reporters, Sano said, "It is always hard to attribute a single weather event to climate change, but we know that the science is also clear that climate change will mean more intense typhoons, potentially. Even if we cannot attribute Haiyan to climate change directly, my country refuses to accept a future where super typhoons will become a regular fixture."

It was a sentiment echoed by Klaus Toepfer, former executive director the United Nations Environment Programme, in an interview on Tuesday with German radio station Deutschlandfunk.

"Of course, this is a region in which typhoons regularly occur. But what is clear – and that’s not speculation but fact – is that such storms are more common, they are becoming stronger, their intensity is increasing and the consequences of such storms, heavy rainfall and storm surges, is also increasing. This is clearly in line with what science has projected and it can be further substantiated by scientifically-based causes."

Toepfer added that even in the face of skepticism by those who remain unconvinced of the evidence, alone the high probability should be enough for a common effort to reduce triggering factors, such as the use of fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas.

"It can never be the wrong thing to do. But again, the scientific basis is so overwhelming that you cannot just walk away and say it was always so and that it will probably always remain that way. No, something has to be done."