THE BLOG
27/11/2013 07:46 GMT | Updated 26/01/2014 05:59 GMT

Typhoon Haiyan Exposes Unscientific and Inhumane Ideology of Climate Change 'Sceptics'

While the terrible devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan focused the minds of many delegates attending the United Nations climate change summit, which ended at the weekend in Warsaw, Poland, it also exposed the unscientific and inhumane ideology of many 'sceptics'.

The typhoon struck the Philippines on 8 November, killing more than 5,000 people and destroying tens of thousands of homes and businesses.

Preliminary analysis indicates that Yolanda, as it has been named in the Philippines, was the world's strongest tropical cyclone at landfall on record, with sustained windspeeds of 190 miles per hour. Many coastal areas, particularly around Tacloban City, were flattened by the storm surge, measuring up to 5.2 metres in height.

The extraordinary damage to lives and livelihoods has inevitably led to speculation about the extent to which Typhoon Haiyan might have been affected by climate change. There is evidence of a link.

Tropical cyclones are rotating storms which form in the tropics and sub-tropics over ocean areas which have surface water temperatures of at least 26.5 centigrade degrees.

Tropical cyclones that form in the Western North Pacific Ocean are called typhoons, and can occur at any time of year. The Philippines is particularly exposed to typhoons, and is hit by 8 or 9 on average each year.

As the most recent assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made clear, global warming has already elevated average sea level around the world by 0.2 metres since the start of the 20th century, making storm surges worse, and the sea surface temperature of the Western North Pacific Ocean has increased, promoting the development of typhoons. These facts are undeniable.

However, simple counts of the frequency of typhoons in the Western North Pacific show no statistically significant trend. For instance, a study by Hisayuki Kubota and Johnny Chan found no long-term change in the number of typhoons landfalling in the Philippines between 1901 and 2005.

But the IPCC drew attention to a paper by Kerry Emanuel and pointed out: "Time series of cyclone indices such as power dissipation, an aggregate compound of tropical cyclone frequency, duration, and intensity that measures total wind energy by tropical cyclones, show upward trends in the North Atlantic and weaker upward trends in the western North Pacific since the late 1970s, but interpretation of longer-term trends is again constrained by data quality concerns".

Furthermore, the IPCC highlighted a review by Ming Ying and co-authors which found that most analyses suggest further global warming will lead to an increase in the intensity of typhoons in the Western North Pacific by up to 18 per cent by the late 21st century, although it is uncertain whether the overall frequency will rise.

The IPCC concluded that an increase in intense tropical cyclone activity was "more likely than not" in the Western North Pacific and North Atlantic by the late 21st century.

Despite this evidence, so-called climate change 'sceptics' have been conducting a concerted campaign to deny that there is any connection between global warming and Typhoon Haiyan.

Benny Peiser, the director of the lobby group for UK climate change 'sceptics', the Global Warming Policy Foundation', declared in a blog for The Spectator magazine on 12 November: "Global warming isn't to blame for the disaster in the Philippines".

Dr Peiser claimed: "The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season, which forecasters had predicted would be more active than normal, turned out to be a complete washout...So, how can the same alleged cause, global warming, inhibit hurricanes on one side of the world while triggering typhoons on the other side?"

In fact, as the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported this week, while it is true that there were the fewest hurricanes this year since 1982, the number of tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic was above average, part of a pattern of increased activity since 1995.

Nevertheless, when Lord Lawson of Blaby, the chair of the Foundation, appeared on Question Time on BBC TV on 14 November, he told the audience: "If you look at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change they say there is absolutely no connection between climate change and tropical storms. This is I'm afraid a scare. There is absolutely no scientific merit in it and no statistical merit in it. This is fact."

David Rose, who has been instructed by Geordie Greig and Gerard Greaves, respectively editor and deputy editor of The Mail on Sunday, to produce a series of articles championing climate change 'sceptics', joined the chorus of denial by decrying the "totally bogus message" that "catastrophic storms such as Typhoon Haiyan are linked to global warming".

Rose cited the study by Professor Kubota and Professor Chan, but ignored the work of Professor Emanuel and the relevant parts of the IPCC report, in a classic example of cherry-picking evidence to suit an argument. And instead of speaking to any scientists, Rose chose only to quote Dr Peiser.

It could be argued that Lord Lawson and Dr Peiser, and their cheerleaders in the UK media, make erroneous statements about climate change simply because they lack the necessary scientific expertise.

But these so-called 'sceptics' are so consistently wrong that it looks more like they are misleading the public in order to promote their own political agenda. In this case they have shown extreme callousness in choosing to boost their cause by denying the evidence that climate change contributed to the human suffering caused by Typhoon Haiyan.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.