Philippine Typhoon -- A Devastating Wake Up Call

TACLOBAN, PHILIPPINES - NOVEMBER 18:  Airvew of Tacloban city of Philippines aftermath the super typhoon Haiyan on November 1
TACLOBAN, PHILIPPINES - NOVEMBER 18: Airvew of Tacloban city of Philippines aftermath the super typhoon Haiyan on November 18, Philippines. (Photo by Onur Coban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

By Josh Karliner, International Team Coordinator, Health Care Without Harm

Will climate change adversely impact human health? Ask the survivors of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

In a matter of hours last week, at least 2,500 people died in one small city alone. Six-hundred thousand others were suddenly climate refugees -- left destitute -- no food, no water, no shelter. The nearly 200 mph winds, and 13-foot storm surge unleashed by one of the strongest tempests ever to make landfall, gutted basic infrastructure. Electricity, down. Roads, buckled and crumbled. Hospitals and clinics, leveled. Doctors and nurses from other parts of the country, unable to reach the devastated area to provide relief.

The tragedy is not over. We know that after disasters like this one, the health impacts take place over the ensuing weeks and months. Hunger sets in. So do diseases like cholera. The poor become poorer, less able to take care of themselves and their children's health. Psychological distress at losing loved ones and having the city where you lived completely destroyed before your very eyes digs its claws in.

We can't directly correlate this particular storm's unprecedented ferocity and huge human and economic toll with climate change. Yet it is a glimpse of our future. The vast majority of scientists agree that the brave, new world of global warming, which will bring on more heat induced illness, migration of vector borne diseases and food shortages, will also be punctuated by more severe and intense storms. These storms will be made even worse as sea level rise precipitates even greater flooding in coastal zones such as Tacloban, Philippines or New York City, USA.

Simply put, Haiyan, known in the Philippines as Yolanda, should leave no doubt that we are in for some wicked weather in the coming years, decades and even centuries. This weather is going to kill lots of people. And for many of those it doesn't kill, it's going to severely disrupt their ability to lead a healthy and happy life.

Yolanda, as Sandy before it, and Katrina before that, should be wake up calls to all of us. Climate change poses a threat of unprecedented magnitude to the very fabric of human civilization. We are now living in the global warming century. But will we wake up and deal with it at a level commensurate to the problem?

The world's governments are currently meeting in Warsaw -- half a world away from Yolanda's trail of destruction. They are trying to hammer out a global agreement to curb climate change. Despite this typhoon's uncanny timing (and that of another one that hit the Philippines during the negotiations last year), no one is holding their breath for these negotiations to succeed. After more than two decades of somnambulant failure to do so, many are understandably skeptical of the utility of such an exercise. Yet without a worldwide accord as a framework to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we are headed into a warming scenario whose impacts are almost unfathomable.

As Philippine President Begnino Aquino put it:

We all live in one planet. Either we come up with a solution that everybody adheres to and cooperates with, or let us be prepared to meet disasters, ever-increasing disasters on a global level.

Speaking of the "most-developed countries that are contributing immensely to the global warming," Aquino told CNN that "there has to be a sense of moral responsibility that what they wreak is playing havoc on the lives of so many others who are less capable of defending for themselves."

At the same time, while the governments need to forge an ambitious and equitable agreement, we can't just wait for them to do so. People from all countries, and all walks of life, particularly those of us in the rich nations most responsible for climate change, need to take notice, stand up and take action.

From our perspective, as an organization that works to engage doctors, nurses, hospitals and health systems, in order to protect public health from climate change, there are many things we as the health sector can do. We can reduce health care's own substantial climate footprint; and we can prepare hospitals to be more resilient so that when the next typhoon or hurricane comes along we can better respond to the health crisis that ensues.

But there is one fundamental set of actions that will do more than anything else to protect public health from climate change. It's plain and simple. We need to work together -- all of us, everywhere -- to move away from dirty energy, from the coal, oil, gas -- that poison people at the source and that pollute the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. If we want to be healthy people on a healthy planet, we need to replace fossil fuels and make a major transition toward healthy, clean, renewable sources of power such as solar and wind. That is the game changer.

It is certainly a tall order to make this kind of power shift from the fuel that basically drove the industrial revolution and the entire 20th century. But it is fundamentally necessary. We need to think big to confront a problem of this magnitude. Some have called for an effort on the scale of the Apollo Project or Marshall Plan. It's a start. But it's still thinking too small.

Forestalling the worst of climate change by shifting to a fundamentally different way of producing and consuming almost everything, almost everywhere on earth, is not as simple as putting a man on the moon, or rebuilding a handful of countries after a World War. It is an even more monumental task that will challenge the depths of our knowledge, our capacity and our humanity. But we can't not do it. The health of the planet, and the people who live here, depend on it.