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2 historic storms offer 2 wildly opposing outlooks on climate change

Warming waters are supercharging storms, but the White House is looking the other way.

A taxi is left abandoned after breaking down in floodwaters during Super Typhoon Mangkhut in Hong Kong on September 16, 2018. CREDIT: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images
A taxi is left abandoned after breaking down in floodwaters during Super Typhoon Mangkhut in Hong Kong on September 16, 2018. CREDIT: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

Two record-shattering storms are currently wreaking havoc in regions almost 9,000 miles apart from each other, a grim milestone as global waters warm and destructive hurricanes become increasingly more dangerous.

Both Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut are associated with mounting death tolls and mass-destruction, but the governments addressing the crises couldn’t be more different in how they approach climate change. While the United States has downplayed the phenomenon and rolled back its involvement in global climate leadership, countries like the Philippines have invested in confronting the issue head-on and called for worldwide action climate change.

Hurricane Florence, now downgraded to a tropical depression, and Typhoon Mangkhut (known as Typhoon Ompong in the Philippines) are both variations on the same type of storm. Tropical cyclones differ in title based only on region — the storms that form in the Atlantic Ocean and northeastern Pacific Ocean are referred to as hurricanes, while their northwestern Pacific counterparts are typically called typhoons.

Florence made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane on Friday morning, while Mangkhut roared ashore in the Philippine province of Cagayan a day later as the equivalent of a Category 5 storm. Mangkhut, the world’s strongest storm this year, has devastated parts of Southeast and East Asia, with at least 69 deaths reported so far and many more expected as the storm continues past Hong Kong and China.

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That area is used to intense tropical storms, but Mangkhut marks a dark new chapter, one scientists say is only likely to get worse amid warming waters, which allow major storms to supercharge and form more quickly. When they arrive, they bring more than just speed, something the southeastern United States is learning right now.

Florence may be a much smaller storm than Mangkhut, but its dangers lie in its rains and storm surges, which are currently hounding North Carolina, where some areas have reportedly seen around 30 inches of rain. So far at least 19 people have been reported dead and more than half a million homes are without power. Wide-scale property damage has also been documented and some areas are entirely cut off, including the city of Wilmington, which reporters on the ground called “an island” cut off from its surroundings by water.

Such scenes make for a dramatic visual, but it’s unclear that they’ll have much of an impact on how the United States addresses the growing dangers posed by climate change.

Despite scientists connecting climate change to more severe storms, many U.S. officials have been slow in their response. After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, lawmakers sought to avoid linking the crisis to climate change even as they asked the federal government for aid. In North Carolina, officials have moreover chosen to prioritize development over responding to sea-level rise.

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And on the eve of Florence making landfall, Trump focused instead on another disaster, slamming the government of Puerto Rico’s upgraded death toll in the wake of Hurricane Maria last year.

A prolific tweeter, Trump’s only comments on social media about Florence have been retweeted updates from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as well as one on Saturday acknowledging the storm’s first five casualties. Another tweet praised his administration’s response to the crisis.

“FEMA, First Responders and Law Enforcement are working really hard on hurricane Florence. As the storm begins to finally recede, they will kick into an even higher gear. Very Professional!” he wrote on Sunday.

Under President Trump, the country has seen a broader shift away from climate action and towards the use of more fossil fuels — the leading cause of global warming. In June 2017, Trump announced he would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, and he has repeatedly questioned climate science.

The president has also historically appeared confused about climate change more broadly as well as its connection to natural disasters. That rhetoric has resonated with conservative media, which holds sway with many Americans.

Half a world away, countries like the Philippines have a different approach to climate change. A March 2018 survey named the Philippines as the third-most vulnerable country in the world to climate change, behind India and Pakistan. Like many island nations, the Philippines are caught between sea-level rise and natural disasters like Mangkhut, both of which threaten the country’s existence. And the nation’s government knows that.

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After Typhoon Haiyan struck the islands in 2013, killing thousands of people and costing millions their homes, the Philippines changed how it approaches dangerous storms. In advance of Mangkhut, evacuating residents and planning for the worst were made a priority, something that has saved lives during typhoon. At least one city, Tacloban, was also rebuilt after Haiyan to allow for greater resistance in the face of such devastating storms. According to the Washington Post, food and clean water were also delivered in anticipation of road and airport closures as Mangkhut neared shore — a stark contrast to the limited resources provided by the U.S. federal government in response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

More broadly, Filipinx leaders have also acknowledged climate change. While strongman President Rodrigo Duterte at one point dismissed the Paris agreement, signed onto by his predecessor, he has long signaled his belief in climate change and ultimately ratified the agreement in March 2017. The move was welcomed by climate activists, many of whom see the Philippines as a moral voice in international climate issues, given the country’s outsized vulnerability.

Historically, the country’s government has played a leading role in calling for wealthier, Western nations to aid their developing counterparts in meeting climate goals. At present the Philippines invests 2 percent of its national budget in efforts to both combat climate change and encourage education on the topic, according to Oxfam. In February, the government moreover announced a number of infrastructure projects to bolster sustainability in the country, including five flood control facilities meant to help protect vulnerable areas from climate change.

By contrast, the United States has moved funding away from FEMA and directed it towards efforts to detain and deport undocumented immigrants. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also suffering a massive staffing shortage amid ongoing regulation rollbacks targeting Obama-era rules meant to mitigate public health hazards like coal ash. One coal ash landfill pile has already collapsed in North Carolina amid Florence’s rains.

Other countries in Mangkhut’s path have also bowed to climate science. While China remains a leading producer of greenhouse gases, the country has positioned itself as a climate leader in the face of U.S. resistance, though not without American allies. Days before either Florence or Mangkhut made landfall, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) a message of support in advance of this year’s Global Climate Action Summit.

The gesture echoed a 2017 trip Brown took to China days after Trump’s Paris withdrawal announcement, when the governor emphasized solidarity on climate issues, with or without the White House’s support.

“California’s leading, China’s leading,” Brown said at the time. “It’s true I didn’t come to Washington, I came to Beijing.”