The Philippines chief negotiator, Yeb Sano, opened the UN climate talks with an impassioned plea for urgent action, and announcing a hunger strike in solidarity for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan.
In a speech that moved negotiators and observers across the conference center to tears, Sano said governments had to take notice of what was happening in his country as they were making their decisions over the coming fortnight.
Typhoons such as Haiyan and its impacts represent a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to procrastinate on climate action. Warsaw must deliver on enhancing ambition and should muster the political will to address climate change.
The Philippines has now begun the painful assessment and recovery process following this weekend’s storm, which has now hit landfall in Vietnam.
It has been recognised as the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall in modern history, spanning over 600km and with winds of 315km/h and gusts of up to 380km/h. Officials estimate up to 10,000 people have died in Tacloban city and elsewhere, within hundreds of thousands more displaced.
The Red Cross has described the devastation caused in the country as “absolute bedlam”.
Haiyan is the fourth Category five cyclone in the Western Pacific this year.
The strength of tropical storms, such as Haiyan, is linked to sea temperature. As the oceans warm with climate change, there is in an increase in available energy and water vapour, fuelling the storm. While storms may not be increasing in frequency, the Pacific Ocean waters are warming faster than expected, and there is a broad scientific consensus that this is increasing the strength of typhoons.
In what he described as a sad “twist of fate”, Sano’s opening speech echoed the sentiment he made at the COP18 conference in Doha 11 months ago, when he made a similar plea as Typhoon Bohpa hit the country, leaving 1,000 dead and hundreds homeless.
It was barely 11 months ago in Doha when my delegation appealed to the world…to open our eyes to the stark reality that we face… as then we confronted a catastrophic storm that resulted in the costliest disaster in Philippine history.
Less than a year hence we cannot imagine that a disaster much bigger would come. With an apparent cruel twist of fate, my country is being tested by this hellstorm called Super Typhoon Haiyan, which has been described by experts as the strongest typhoon that has ever made landfall in the course of recorded human history.
Sano called on governments attending the conference to confront the issue of loss and damage – a mechanism that would help compensate vulnerable countries for the unavoidable impacts of climate change – and address the reality of climate change.
He warned that developed country emission reduction targets were “dangerously low” and called on governments to raise their ambition.
He also called for all countries – rich and poor – to join together to tackle climate change and ensure sustainable development. Such an issue requires “global solidarity”, he told the plenary.
To anyone who continues to deny the reality that is climate change, I dare you to get off your ivory tower and away from the comfort of you armchair. I dare you to go to the islands of the Pacific, the islands of the Caribbean and the islands of the Indian ocean and see the impacts of rising sea levels; to the mountainous regions of the Himalayas and the Andes to see communities confronting glacial floods, to the Arctic where communities grapple with the fast dwindling polar ice caps, to the large deltas of the Mekong, the Ganges, the Amazon, and the Nile where lives and livelihoods are drowned, to the hills of Central America that confronts similar monstrous hurricanes, to the vast savannas of Africa where climate change has likewise become a matter of life and death as food and water becomes scarce.
Not to forget the massive hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern seaboard of North America. And if that is not enough, you may want to pay a visit to the Philippines right now.
The most poignant moment of Sano’s speech came when he gave the plenary a personal account of his brother, who has spent the last three days gathering dead bodies from the rubble and is going hungry because the supplies have been cut off from his island.
In solidarity, Sano said he would be taking part in a voluntary hunger strike over the coming weeks, standing with his brother and others going hungry in the Philippines, and to call governments to account and push them to deliver in Warsaw.
His emotional speech sent shivers through the conference centre, leaving delegates both inside and outside of the plenary in tears, and received a standing ovation inside the hall.
Following the speech, China also called for a three-minute silence in the plenary, in memory of all those who lost their lives over the weekend.
Repeating the sentiment’s he shared in Doha, Sano called on Warsaw to be the moment when countries start to move the world out of the climate danger zone.
In Doha, we asked “If not us then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where? It may have fell on deaf ears. But here in Warsaw, we may very well ask these same forthright questions. “If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here in Warsaw, where?
What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness. Right here in Warsaw.
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