Typhoon Haiyan: The Global Poor Bear the Deadly Brunt of Climate Change

Typhoon Haiyan: The Global Poor Bear the Deadly Brunt of Climate Change

Typhoon Haiyan: The Global Poor Bear the Deadly Brunt of Climate Change

History illustrates that Typhoon Haiyan was a man-made disaster that’s the result of climate debt.


In 1494, Spain and Portugal were in serious competition over other peoples’ lands. This bothered the church, and Pope Alexander VI made it his duty to write up the Treaty of Tordesillas, which dictated that Spain was free to attempt to conquer lands west of an imaginary line on the Atlantic, and Portugal could attempt the same for all lands east of that line, essentially creating Eastern and Western hemispheres.

A little more than two decades later, Spain’s influence in what it thought was a new world grew nearly as much as its avarice. It wanted more lands, and all the resources that came with those lands. Ferdinand Magellan, who was Portuguese, offered his services to King Charles of Spain. His plan was to sail west, as the treaty obliged—but to sail so far west that he would essentially reach the Eastern Hemisphere, and attempt to conquer those lands for Spain. He eventually landed in what we now call the Philippines.

What we remember today is that Magellan led the first circumnavigation, going not only around the world itself but also cleverly around an international treaty. What we forget—or never learned to begin with—is that the nearly two-year voyage ended poorly for the explorer. Magellan was cunning enough to deceive a powerful religion and a budding empire, and was even crafty enough to get some indigenous leaders to sign on board for their own colonization on an island called Mactan, off the island Cebu in the Philippines.

But that wasn’t the case when it came to a local indigenous chief named Lapu Lapu. Magellan was sure that he could convince Lapu Lapu that he, too, should accept colonization, and he scheduled a meeting to do just that. And in case words didn’t do trick, Magellan brought along ships, mortars and more than 6,000 warriors that would. What Magellan wasn’t prepared for was the ferocity of Lapu Lapu’s resistance, backed by thousands of his indigenous warriors, who emerged victorious in the 1521 Battle of Mactan. Spain could claim that its agent sailed around the world—but it couldn’t claim that he could conquer anything. The Spanish would wait almost forty-five years before attempting to colonize the islands again.

Lapu-Lapu City, the warrior chief’s namesake that largely covers most of Mactan Island, was largely spared by Typhoon Haiyan. But the rest of the Philippines hasn’t been so lucky. Because the sheer magnitude of destruction there has been so devastating, rescue efforts haven’t yet started in earnest. And the immediate cleanup will be costly. To that end, the United States Agency for International Development has donated the paltry sum $20 million. Not only will that kind of money not get very far for the swift aid the Philippines needs right now, but it’s not even a drop in the bucket of the debt owed for the historical carbon emissions the United States has created in the atmosphere, which have created the kind of changes in the climate that lead to massive typhoons in the Philippines for the last three years in a row.

When Pope Alexander VI divided the world, he drew a vertical line separting east from west. But colonization, and the resource plundering that followed, can be better understood as a north-south phenomenon. With little exception, the global South was colonized by the global North, which benefited not only from the theft of land but also from the theft of resources, often in the form of exploited labor and raw materials. The global North was then able to accumulate untold wealth as a result. But what’s often left out of that calculation is the fact that the global South wasn’t only depleted of its tangible labor and materials on earth—it was also stripped of its climate rights.

As I’ve explained previously, climate debt accounts for the historical carbon emissions created by the global North and owed to the global South. The atmosphere is shared by all of the inhabitants on earth, and we should have equal access to it. Yet between 1850 to 2004, the global North created almost 70 percent of the carbon build-up in the atmosphere—created during a time in which the global North accumulated untold wealth at the cost of enormous carbon emissions.

The consequences of those massive carbon emissions equal changes in the climate that fuel destruction in the form of typhoons like the one that ravaged the Philippines. But as fmost countries in the global South were pillaged of their resources, they were also pillaged of their ability to amass wealth. That means that when a massive storm strikes in the global South, those countries are far less likely to have the necessary wealth to mitigate the destruction. While the global North holds only about 15 percent of the global population, it has created the vast majority of historical climate emissions—allowing it to accumulate 80 percent of the world’s wealth. The global South is home to about 85 percent of the world’s peoples, has created only 30 percent of historical climate emissions, and has amassed only 20 percent of the world’s wealth.

And although emerging economies like China are certainly responsible for growing levels of current carbon emissions, it doesn’t come close to what the United States emits on a daily basis. The US has successfully lobbied to keep the Pentagon out of any and all international climate negotiations and agreements. Our military consumes more than 300,000 barrels of oil daily—and that doesn’t count contracted facilities. If the Pentagon’s carbon emissions in its thousands of military basis around the world were counted, the United States would be the clear top polluter. Instead, its operations—and subsequent pollution—remain uncounted when we talk about climate change.

It is dishonest to analyze Typhoon Haiyan without acknowledging the global North’s historical carbon emissions, and current US pollution. As part of the global North, the United States owes a debt to the Philippines, and to the entire global South. A $20 million donation won’t do much, especially at a time when it’s already too late. Instead, the United States would be better suited to develop state-of-the-art energy technologies and share them with the world, and with the global South in particular. There are dozens of ways to pay down the climate debt. And they will only be realized once we admit what we owe.

Five hundred years ago, Lapu Lapu was able to resist Spanish colonization, and inspired generations of Fiipinos to fight against imperialism. As the corpses of climate change begin to rot in the Philippines, it’s important to remember that ghost of resistance.

Peter Rothberg looks at how to help the Philippines recover from Haiyan.

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