One year ago, November 8 – 11, 2013, Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines, a country in which Columbans have worked since 1929. At that time, Columban Fr. Pat O’Donoghue remarked: “I have experienced a number of calamities here in the Philippines . . . but never anything of this magnitude. It is beyond description in terms of its severity, extent and human suffering.” Six thousand people lost their lives as a result of the typhoon.
In the wake of such a tragedy, the General Council of the Columbans issued a moving statement: “We see this latest environmental disaster as yet another example of the growing devastation caused by human induced Climate Change which has far reaching impacts, including increased migration, violence and poverty around the world.”
What can we learn from this human tragedy?
One lesson is that there really are no truly “natural” disasters. We are becoming increasingly aware of the ways humans contribute to these disasters, and the consequences as well weigh heavily on real human lives. Scientific evidence points to global warming and climate change as a cause leading to the increased frequency and intensity of tropical storms such as Typhoon Haiyan.
Another lesson, and just as significant, is that it is the poor who are most vulnerable to natural disasters and their consequences – leading to increased migration, violence and poverty.
Last year alone, more than 5.8 million people lost their homes in the Philippines due to natural disasters, including 4.1 million displaced by Typhoon Haiyan. And this tragedy is not confined to the Philippines, but world-wide. According to a 2014 study released by the Norwegian Refugee Council, “Natural disasters displaced three times as many people as war last year – even as 2013 was a horrific year for conflict – with 22 million people driven out of their homes by floods, hurricanes, and other hazards.” The study added, “Scientists predict a rise in such extreme weather events in a future under climate change.”
Ellen Teague, a Columban coworker in the United Kingdom, recently contributed to a study on Conflict and Climate Change. The study concludes: “Environmental degradation associated with climate change has caused food and water shortages, migration of peoples, and economic losses. These in turn raise tensions in the regions where they occur…. The movement of millions of environmental refugees, such as those displaced by natural disasters and rising sea levels, means more potential for conflict.”
In addition to increased migration and conflict, natural disasters linked to climate change have a devastating economic impact on the poor. In the seven weeks following Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippine government spent $1 billion paying foreign debts, while a little more than $100 million had been pledged by international donors for relief work. By the end of 2014, the government will have spent another $8.8 billion in debt payments. Much of this debt was incurred during the corrupt military dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and 1980s. But it is the poor who continue to pay the debt in terms of lost investment in health, education, and dignified housing – and disaster relief and reconstruction.
Pope Francis in The Joy of Gospel reminds us that “the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences.” “Masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized.” He challenges us to turn away from “a globalization of indifference” and instead to cultivate solidarity and “a feeling of compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain,” so that we may take responsibility for one another.
Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and current advocate for climate justice, adds: “We need to change our habits in the rich world about how we consume, how we produce, how we talk about growth. And young people are very good at understanding this. I am very encouraged and in fact the one thing that gives me hope is the way that young people can make a difference.”
That was the hopeful message that the 350,000 people at the People’s Climate March in New York conveyed to the world, a march in which Columban coworkers from Peru and the United States participated. What specifically can we do? As Conflict and Climate Change suggests: We can build a clean, green economy; we can stop investing in fossil fuels; we can deliver on our promises and protect the poorest; and we can act fair and fast for a global agreement on climate.