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Leader comment >

Contributions to Typhoon Haiyan

DISTANCE is no object when it comes to charity. News organisations covering the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines have sought British nationals to interview for their stories from the region, but empathy is not so partisan. The natural, perennial fears about injury, homelessness, hunger, and thirst are enough to trigger a sympathetic response, even without the aid of the Western diet of disaster films and graphic news reports. To have everything one owns washed away by a wave or blown away in the wind is all too imaginable, though thankfully rare in the developed nations. The inaccessibility of so many of the typhoon's victims is a cause of further anguish: past experience has taught that the speed at which water, food, and medicine can be supplied has an exponential effect on survival rates. We predict a generous response from the public, perhaps in gratitude for the relative security of their homes.

There is another motive for generosity, however: guilt. The typhoon struck at the same time as energy and environment ministers from around the world met in Warsaw to debate the latest responses to climate change. In September, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that scientists were 95 per cent convinced that human activity was driving global warming. This is as convinced as scientists ever get, but politicians, industrialists, and large sections of the public continue to feel justified in ignoring them. This is easy when the threat is non-specific. No one will ever be able to say that this storm, or that drought, was the result of human carbon emissions. Yet the scientific models predicted that even a small rise in the earth's surface temperature would lead to intense fluctuations in weather patterns, and so it is proving. How many record-breaking storm surges, how many devastating bushfires, how many powerful typhoons will it take to change attitudes?

For the present, there is a disparity between the compassion felt by people in the developed world and their willingness to make the reforms that might - and many meteorologists say that it is already too late - make a difference to the severity and frequency of recurrences. A similar discrepancy occurs in the City, where, in the high-rise offices, the highest profits are made, while, in the streets below, pedestrians suffer some of the lowest air quality in Europe. In the parable, it is the wise man who builds his house on the rock. This is not an option open to many of the world's poorest. Their fate, however, is not a consequence of their location, but results, in part, from the decisions - lifestyle choices - of the affluent dwellers on the rock. The once wise man is now seen to have been foolish, but, for the time being at least, the consequences of his foolishness are being visited on the innocent inhabitants of the sand.

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