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28 November 2013

After the disaster in the Philippines, what can we say about climate change?

The truth may not make for a headline-grabbing story, but it's important.

By Michael Brooks

What is the correct scientific reaction to the disaster in the Philippines? It’s certainly not to say, “I told you so,” and bring up the bogeyman of climate change. Invoking the science of altruism would be a much better response.

It has never been more tempting to draw a link between extreme weather events and climate change. Politicians often do it. In his 2013 State of the Union speech, Barack Obama cited Hurricane Sandy and raging wildfires as indications of what would happen if we ignore the “overwhelming judgement of science” and fail to mitigate the consequences of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In reality, however, no one has succeeded in making a causal link between any extreme weather event and global warming.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in September, does claim that the climate has been warming in exactly the way we’d expect, given the amount of carbon we have pumped into the atmosphere. It’s also at least 90 per cent certain that human activity has given us more hot days and fewer cold days. It is less probable (66 per cent) that the increased number of heatwaves over the past century is down to human influence on the climate.

Yet scientific observations tell us nothing about our impact on hurricanes. All we can say is that we have seen an upward trend in the number of cyclones in the North Atlantic since the 1970s.

This is hardly a headline-grabbing story – and it’s not as compelling as the news about the Filipino diplomat Naderev Sano, who is on hunger strike in solidarity with his stricken compatriots. He’ll start eating, he says, when there are meaningful agreements on the table at the UN climate change conference taking place in Warsaw between 11 and 22 November. Sano conceded that no single weather event can be linked to climate change but added that his country “refuses to accept a future where super-typhoons will become a regular fixture”.

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His concerns are shared by the growing proportion of Americans – not to mention a large number of scientists – who believe that global warming is affecting their weather. It’s frustrating: a provable link between global warming and humanitarian disasters would be an irrefutable argument for action on climate change.

We could choose to look beyond the IPCC’s conclusions but it’s not clear that this would be a sensible strategy. A couple of seasons in which predicted hurricanes don’t materialise could be used by climate change deniers as evidence that the science is unreliable.

Because of this, right now, rather than stretching the truth about the science of hurricanes, there’s value in putting science from a completely different field to work. We still don’t know why altruism exists: acts of kindness towards people you do not know and are not related to don’t make sense in a mechanistic, gene-driven biology.

What we do know is that acts of altruism inspire other people to do the same. Researchers from Yale University carried out experiments to test human reactions to witnessing generosity and learned that we are highly motivated to perform acts of kindness when we witness similar kindness in others. The best scientific reaction to the havoc wreaked on the Philippines is not to shout about climate change but to give money to the disaster relief fund and then make sure you tell others what you did.