Double Whammy: More Population & More Storms = More Death & Destruction

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By Leon Kolankiewicz

Leon is an Advisory Board Member and Senior Writing Fellow with CAPS. A wildlife biologist, and environmental scientist and planner, Leon is the author of Where Salmon Come to Die: An Autumn on Alaska's Raincoast, the essay “Overpopulation versus Biodiversity” in Environment and Society: A Reader and was a contributing writer to Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation.

In a career that spans three decades, three countries and more than 30 states, Leon has managed environmental impact statements for many federal agencies on projects ranging from dams and reservoirs to coal-fired power plants, power lines, flood control projects, road expansions, management of Civil War battlefields, NASA's Kennedy Space Center operations and a proposed uranium mine on a national forest. He also has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop comprehensive conservation plans at more than 40 national wildlife refuges from the Caribbean to Alaska.

The writer's views are his own.

November 14, 2013

Category 5 Super Typhoon Haiyan smashed into the Philippines with some of the highest winds ever recorded in a tropical cyclone (195 mph) and a storm surge two stories high. Sadly, the tragic devastation it wrought on this island nation is an evil harbinger of even worse calamities to come.

Two potent, longstanding mega-trends with considerable momentum are converging and are likely to interact synergistically, that is, to produce far worse outcomes than if either trend had happened alone, in isolation. These two hardline trends will prove difficult to dislodge from their tenacious trajectories. In unison, for the foreseeable future, they are likely to cause even more mayhem and more heartbreaking and economically debilitating catastrophes like the “Haiyan Hell” the Philippines is now suffering through.

However, one of the two mega-trends is far more amenable to amelioration than the other.

The first trend is rapid population growth, especially concentrated in the tropics, in poor countries, and close to vulnerable coastlines. The second trend is a predicted increase in the ferocity of tropical cyclones – hurricanes (in the Atlantic) and typhoons (in the Pacific) – as a result of global warming.

Let us consider each in turn.

If any one country could be cited as a case study of abject failure to proactively address and defuse its population explosion, the Philippines would be a leading candidate.

The Philippines’ population has skyrocketed FIVE TIMES from about 20 million in 1950 to more than 100 million today (see graph), and is on a trajectory to top 140 million by 2050. Given that the entire country is a tropical archipelago of 7,000 islands, essentially all of it is exposed to the wrath of typhoons. Indeed, it is considered the most vulnerable large country in the world to tropical cyclones.

Widespread, extreme poverty and shoddy construction are associated with this rapid population growth. “You end up with these kind of urban time bombs, where cities have doubled, tripled, quadrupled in size in 50 years,” without good building standards, Richard Olson, director of the Extreme Events Institute at Florida International University, told the Washington Post.

Alan Weisman’s new book Countdown mentions that “some say” the Philippines “is the last bastion of the Vatican’s theocratic empire.” Blame for denial of the Philippines’ population crisis rests squarely with the Vatican and with the nation’s own Catholic Bishops’ Conference. It is this group that fights tooth-and-nail against President Benigno Aquino III’s support for family planning, including free contraception and reproductive health care for impoverished mothers.

Hope lies in the fact that women in many other predominantly Roman Catholic countries, from Spain, France and Italy in Europe to Brazil and Mexico in Latin America, have more common sense than bishops, cardinals or the Pope, and are more dedicated to the practical well-being of their families. In all of these countries, contraceptive use is widespread, and fertility is at or below replacement level.

The other mega-trend, unfortunately, is a much, much harder nut to crack, and that is global warming.

Warm water is the fuel that powers cyclones, and sea surface temperatures are increasing worldwide. The temperature gradient between sea level and the top of the cyclone is the heat engine that drives tropical storms, and climatologists believe this gradient is steepening.

Current thinking is that climate change is not increasing the frequency of typhoons and hurricanes, but may well be increasing the ferocity of those that do occur. Rising sea levels exacerbate the deadly and damaging storm surges of both this typhoon and Hurricane Sandy last year.

Unless we can turn the demographic and climate juggernauts around, there will be more hell to pay in the Philippines, and many other places.

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