Catastrophe and Context

First of all, let me say something to everyone who has volunteered, donated, prayed, or just expressed concern about the Philippines in recent days:


The outpouring of generosity from all over the world is tremendously inspiring and humbling. It underlines the reality that we are all in this together. More on that a bit later in this post. For those looking for where to donate, the New York Times has a good list of organizations, here:

The first type of context I want to provide regarding this catastrophe relates to geography and population. The Philippines is an archipelago of 7,107 islands. The total land mass is roughly equivalent to the state of Arizona. However, the islands are spread out over an area almost 1.5 times as long as the state of California. They range in size from extremely small to almost the size of Pennsylvania.

There are three main groupings of islands:

  • The northernmost and largest island of Luzon, which contains Manila, as well as the provinces of Cavite and Batangas, which I frequent, and is home to one half of the country’s population: about 50 million people. For these 50 million people, “island living” is something of a misnomer. The island is so large that you can easily live your whole life without seeing the ocean.
  • The central region, which includes thousands of islands of varying sizes, called the Visayas.
  • The southern, second-largest island of Mindanao. The southwestern half of this island is where the majority of the 5 million Muslims in the Philippines live, and is often the site of civil unrest. The other half of Mindanao is predominantly Christian, like the rest of the country, which is 80% Catholic.

The super-typhoon hit the Visayas, especially Eastern Visayas. While the satellite images showed it covering the entire country, in Luzon and Mindanao, and even in parts of the Visayas, the only impact was some extra rain and wind. I have not heard of any flooding on Luzon, a common occurrence with much lessor storms.

Here is the key: 10% of the population of the Philippines was affected by this storm. 90% of the population was not affected.

Both of those numbers are very important. Imagine if a storm affected 31 million citizens of the USA, meaning several large states completely devastated. Now you have some idea of just how large, powerful, and destructive this storm was.

On the other hand, the entire country was not destroyed! 90% of the population was not directly impacted.

Of course that 90% is very focused on helping the 10% who were affected. So the country, while severely challenged right now, possesses considerable strength with which to deal with the aftermath.

Imagine the administrative delays and snafus, the protests, accusations, and demands that would result if a storm wiped out 30% of all buildings in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.

No country on Earth today is prepared to deal smoothly with a storm of this magnitude. The Philippines had made many preparations that were simply washed away by the massive storm surge. So please, have some flexibility in judging the response of the Philippine government.

Now let’s turn to the political and environmental context.

This storm was not merely a natural phenomenon. Humans, and especially humans living in the USA, had a helping hand in making this happen. I am tired of the constant refrain of, “We cannot definitively tie any specific climate event to climate change.” As my late grandfather used to say, Hogwash! Consider the following:

  • We have been told for years now by scientists that climate change would lead to larger and more severe storms.
  • This was, according to several reports, the largest and most severe storm ever to make landfall anywhere on Earth.

I don’t think I need to go on. It seems clear that THIS storm, if not its existence then at least its magnitude, was caused by climate change. And the country whose emissions of greenhouse-causing gases has contributed the most to climate change over the last 200 years is my country, the USA.

Countries like the Philippines are paying the price for our industrial development, and our official refusal to responsibly limit our emissions, even after the impacts of climate change have begun to affect populations all over the world. Countries such as the Philippines are paying the price in blood and tears for our lack of responsibility.

This is the context missing from the news coverage. It is time to start climate reparations. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed to a Global Climate Fund, or GCF, to which the most developed countries would contribute, to pay for repairing climate change damage in those poorer countries most affected. The Philippines is predicted to be among the 3 countries most affected, and is, unfortunately, already off to a good start on that.

The GCF is supposed to amount to 100 billion dollars per year by 2020. A downpayment on that of 5 billion dollars to the Philippines right now could go a long way toward not only recovering and rebuilding from this storm, but also making unprecedented and massive preparations for future super-storms.

The GCF is one of the major sticking points right now in the annual climate change talks going on in Warsaw, where the head of the Philippine delegation has started a hunger strike, until meaningful progress on an accord is in sight:

There has been no movement because the US and other wealthy countries are refusing to provide any funds for the GCF.

Please don’t disrespect my intelligence by telling me that the US doesn’t have the money. Consider:

  • We could cut several hundred billion dollars from our military budget and still spend far more than any other country on Earth.
  • We could impose a fraction of a cent tax on financial taxes and raise a similar amount.
  • We could increase taxes on the wealthiest to their levels under President Clinton, or increase taxes on fossil fuel companies, and raise a great deal of money.
  • We have the money, lots of it. You’ll see that very clearly the next time the US goes to war.

Obviously, this isn’t going to happen just because I think it should. It will take thousands or millions of people organizing for it and demanding it. There are many organizations and groups active on this issue. Lately I have become enamored of this one:

Take a few minutes to learn what they are about. And feel free to comment, even if you think I told you not to above.

Note: From time to time you may see advertisements on these posts. I have no control over the timing, placement, or content of these, nor do I receive any compensation for them.

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  • jeff harley  On November 16, 2013 at 9:46 pm

    To use your own words…that is hogwash. Since the beginning if time there has been climate changes. Land once covered in ice is now an hot dry desert. There is much evidence if super storms all through history. To try to blame this on one country and one environmental issue is absurd. I love the Philippines and the people there. I feel at a loss as to what I can do to help them. But to blame this catastrophe on the USA isn’t the answer.

  • Gamers Society  On November 18, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    Humans are an insignificant speck in the world.
    We populate less than 10% of the land surface.
    the ocean emits 90% of the worlds emissions into its atmosphere naturally… the ocean also leaks oil spills naturally that make our oil spills look like a smudge… There have been cries of Global Warming but now the ice is actually growing at 3 times normal rates and years ago it was the opposite; people crying the world is going to end because the ice caps were getting more wide spread.
    No… climate changes are not so easily defined by “scientists” today. We simply do not know our true impact on the planet… we like to guess a lot and throw the words FACT and FEAR in peoples faces to get gain.

    Cant raise taxes on the rich… this is supposed to be a country of equality, if we begin taxing rich people it is like we are punishing success…

    Our country is the ONLY true republic in the entire world… and many countries are not happy with our influence and at times interference (right or wrong). Therefore our budget is required… SUPPORT OUR TROOPS …dont take their money to support arbitrary climate tests by forcing laws to hinder growth through fear of an unknown destiny.

    Fossil fuel was debunked decades ago and yet the world ignores such discoveries in order to keep us in fear of the end of the world by depleting it… such sillyness… proven already that oils is not derived from billion year old bones (silly thought) but rather from friction deep in the earth’s crust… “fossil” fuel is regenerating from places we thought was drained dry.

    scientists are just people who follow a string of theories… and very few are ever resolved definitively.

    Taxes are no answer, it is oppressive and digressive…

    The world is in trouble but not from climate or ice or oil or emissions… we stopped caring for people. we care for ourselves and our needs and only get mad and want to see change when our lives feel threatened. When we feel this form of threat we lash out at those who seem to have more than us. we should instead go find some way we can help and not some way some other person should help

  • Barry C. Saiff  On November 19, 2013 at 8:35 pm

    Of course, there are many people who disagree with me. Many people are climate change deniers. The sad fact is, billions of dollars have been spent to convince people that climate change is a hoax. Some people will definitely be convinced of that. Here is one article refuting the hoax scam:
    Here is a quote from that article:
    “If the GOP had its way, and it suited their pro-corporate agenda, they’d vote to repeal gravity. Yes, that’s funny but it’d be no more ridiculous than its unscientific and agenda-driven denial of climate change.”
    If you’re interested, there are many more sources you can check. For example, has many resources on this:
    The overwhelming majority of scientists who have spent decades studying the climate agrees that climate change is real, it is already occurring, and human emissions are the major cause.
    As for taxing the wealthy, they have benefited from what the USA has to offer more than most, and their tax rates have gone down dramatically as their fortunes have risen. Billionaires now pay a lower tax rate than secretaries. Since we enacted the income tax in 1913, the periods of highest GDP growth have been those periods when income tax rates on the top earners were the highest. The pattern is very consistent.
    As for the troops, of course I support them as individuals. But, most often the missions that the US gives them are ineffective, immoral, illegal, and work against the interests of the US. As a country we are addicted to militarism.
    I welcome varies points of view, but I don’t promise to engage in endless debate with everyone. Sometimes we have to just agree to disagree.

  • Barry C. Saiff  On November 19, 2013 at 9:37 pm

    Here is a great essay by Bill Moyers that explains why climate change is easy to ignore and difficult for people to wrap their minds around:

  • ChrisJ  On November 21, 2013 at 4:52 am

    I am not convinced that climate change is the direct, causative result of our world’s industrialization. Do I believe that climate change may be occurring? Yes. Do I believe that we need to seriously adjust our production, industrialization, use of energy, food choices etc. for a better world for all? Yes. Different reasons, and while it may be too little too late, it might help in the long run to see our planet heal a bit more quickly a s a result of our proper stewardship of the world’s resources.

  • Barry C. Saiff  On November 22, 2013 at 2:16 am

    Here’s an article on the walkout of 133 countries in the climate change talks now going on in Warsaw, Poland:

  • Barry C. Saiff  On November 22, 2013 at 2:17 am

    For news of the Philippines, here are some good sites:

  • David  On November 30, 2013 at 11:51 pm

    I checked out the organisation you were promoting: Unfortunately they want to deliver aid by empowering women. It’s men who need empowering as they are the ones who are meant to be the leaders of their family. It is unfortunate people go into countries needing help and feed them poison.

    • Barry C. Saiff  On January 21, 2014 at 3:57 am

      You are entitled to your opinion, however, I and many experts on development disagree. In the poorest villages of the world, a girl child eats last and least. She may go to school for a year or two, but spends most of her childhood working to support the rest of the family. When she reaches puberty, her body needs more nutrition, and she still gets less. She is typically married and gives birth at a young age. Because her body is malnourished, she gives birth to malnourished children. So you see, when you deny adequate food, human rights, and participation in society to 50% of the population, and that happens to be the child-bearing half of the population, you prevent the possibility of a healthy society. Conversely, when organizations such as The Hunger Project empower the leadership of poor rural women, life for everyone in the community quickly improves. Women tend to know the needs of the community, because they are doing most of the work to take care of everyone. Men tend to be drunk on their relative power, and if given extra resources often spend more on things like alcohol, cigarettes, and gambling. Attitudes such as yours have unfortunately played a huge role in the way the poorest villages on Earth are organized, to the detriment of everyone.

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