‘Super’ Typhoon Haiyan: Suffering and the Sin of Climate Change Denial

These “superstorms” aren’t an “act of God,” but an act of willful disregard for God’s creation.

Christian theology distinguishes between “natural evil,” that is, destruction and suffering that can be caused by natural phenomena like earthquakes or storms, and moral evil, the kind of evils that result from the interlocking effects of human sin.

Is the destructiveness of Typhoon Haiyan a tragedy of “natural evil,” the kind of horrible occurrence that occurs randomly in nature?  Or, is it actually moral evil, traceable to human sin?

There is no doubt this storm is a massive evil. Haiyan, with its sustained wind speeds of 150 to 170 mph, is among the strongest storms on record and it has produced mass suffering and death, as well as widespread destruction.

The fact that we are having to invent new language to describe such massively destructive storms, like “Super Typhoon Haiyan” or “Superstorm Sandy” suggests we need to take a different look at such violent storms today and theologically assess the human responsibility for them.

These “superstorms” aren’t an “act of God,” but an act of willful disregard for God’s creation, and the neglect of the human responsibility to care for the planet.

There is moral evil to be seen in these “superstorms, I believe, on two levels. First, there is the moral evil of continuing to pump fossil fuels into the atmosphere, producing global warming. Second, however, is the moral evil of climate change denial, that is, those who would continue to deny, in the face of mounting evidence, that violent climate change is upon us and it is accelerating.  A recent Pew poll  shows political conservatives deeply divided over the validity of climate science.

But as some argue politically, the evidence continues to mount, and more people continue to suffer and even die from extreme climate events. According to the Philippine government, the area’s typhoons have been getting stronger. “Menacingly, the Filipino typhoons are getting stronger and stronger, especially since the 90s,” said Romulo Virola, head of the government’s national statistics board.

There is a stronger and stronger case to be made that these “superstorms” and “supertyphoon” phenomena are product of abrupt climate changes due to global warming produced by the continued (and increasing) burning fossil fuels. As the Environmental Protection Agency notes, “The primary human activity affecting the amount and rate of climate change is greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.”

These “superstorms” then are likely the result of human activities that have contributed to the warming of the oceans. According to the scientists from the intergovernmental panel on climate change in their recent special report on extreme events, the steady warming of the oceans is likely to lead to fewer but stronger tropical typhoons.

“Superstorm Sandy” was nicknamed “Frankenstorm” because it grew massive in such a bizarre way. Climate Central, a Web site devoted to the science and effects of climate change, observed that hurricane Sandy became a giant “Frankenstorm” because it was blocked in to land and not pushed out to sea because of “blocking patterns” which have appeared with greater frequency and intensity in recent years due to changes in the jet stream.  These new patterns could be linked to 2012’s record Arctic sea ice loss.

As these massively destructive storms capture our attention, our compassion, and hopefully our charity as well, they are also convincing many more Americans that human activity is the cause.

There is a theological prescription, in a classical sense, for what we must do: confession, repentance and change.  In the case of what we are up against in terms of planetary destruction, those theological directives look like this:

Admit human caused, violently destructive climate change is happening.  The harm to God’s creation is real, it is happening and human beings bear enormous responsibility for it.

Repent for what we have already lost by inaction. Those who talk about “reversing the effects of climate change” are also engaging in a form of denial. There is no reversing, but that does not mean the climate change is unstoppable at current levels. But action to stop what we have already done, and slow down future changes, is urgent.

Change personal practice and public policy. The World Health Organization has a good analysis of climate change policies that are needed. So do many other reputable organizations. Individuals need to take responsibility as well, both to move toward less of a carbon footprint, and to vote for those who will make positive policy changes.

But above all, right this minute, compassion for those affected by Typhoon Haiyan is most urgently needed.  Here is a list of places to give.

Image courtesy of DFID – UK Department for International Development.

  • Steven Goddard

    A typhoon in 1898 killed 7,000 people in the Philippines, three times as many as this storm.

    They must have really cranked up the carbon sins back in the 19th century.

  • Steven Goddard

    A typhoon in 1584 killed 200,000 people. This was punishment for not believing that Earth is the center of the universe.

    “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”

  • freemen

    Good Lord, Its come to this, Now we know how desperate warmists are. Fire and brimstone surmons. Hocus Pocus, Scary man in the sky sermons.

  • Thucydides

    “Theologies of hell and damnation that are used to make human lives a misery are truly scary to me because they help to create and sustain ‘hell on earth’ for many. They contradict God’s love and mercy.” SUSAN BROOKS THISTLETHWAITE, October 28, 2013

  • natecar

    Susan,
    Sadly, you don’t know much about climate change. This abrupt change to which you refer has been in hiatus almost as long as it was in existence prior to hiatus. The records on tropical cyclone activity over the globe are clear – there has been NO INCREASE in frequency or severity. In fact, that has also been shown to be true about ‘extreme weather’ as well, but of course that’s a big bogeyman as no one quite knows what defines extreme weather.
    You also don’t know much about pacific cyclones, as the terms to which you refer have existed for quite some time. Though, you probably never tracked a Pacific storm before. Of course, you also didn’t look at historical storm tracks to see that this type of storm and this path are normal.
    What you should have known is that the most important recent change is in human populations in vulnerable areas.
    Maybe this is God’s way of punishing us for not using birth control more often.

  • CCNL

    Once again, areas prone to have typhoons should have all the twenty miles from the beach made into national parks. Only daily visits allowed. No buildings of any kind. These national parks should grow rapidly growing trees to serve as a buffer to the homes inland. Ditto for the construction of sand dunes along the beaches. Fight Nature with Nature!!!

  • longjohns

    Ms. Thistlethwaite. You finally lost it. The storm is because humans caused harm by our own actions–this may or may not be true. However, you presume calamities to humans are somehow due to our misdeeds. If that were true, why do terrible things happen to humans without it being our fault? Look at any infant dying from malaria or simple diarrhea because they happen to live in the middle of nowhere. The real truth is that the Sahara desert is totally barren and inhospital and it is natural and not due to human activities. Storms take on sinister values only when you put human welfare in the center of the universe–natural phenomenons then take on human values in your mind.

  • didactic1

    This religious extremist simply has no concept of scientific causation. The latest major storm is hardly unique to Asian Pacific islands. The extent of destrucition in part is due to overpopulation in low lying areas. There is no evidence, none, that this storm or Sandy were caused by human caused climate change. One does not have to be a denier to caution against hysteria by unstable judging self satisfied would be prophets.

  • eric654

    The author is a case study in the shallowness of public understanding of science. As many commenters have pointed out, the article is replete with inaccuracies from start to finish. 1) Equating energy use with sin, 2) Haiyan among strongest storms on record, 3) new terms like super typhoon, 4) red herring of “climate change denial”, 5) Filipino typhoons getting stronger since the 90′s (that one is actually true but due to regime change from El Nino to La NIna).

    6) “abrupt climate changes”, 7) Sandy growing “massive in such a bizarre way”, 8) blocking patterns ” linked to 2012’s record Arctic sea ice loss” (this one is not outright false, but it is very speculative), and 9) the usual prescriptions that are worse than nothing like the website that says “Install compact fluorescent bulbs in all your home light fixtures-but remember, compact fluorescents contain mercury,…”

    In short the author starts with numerous premises that are false and predictably concludes that people must vote for socialists and buy toxic light bulbs to save the planet. It would be laughable if it were not so dangerous. America was once a great country, but now we have consumed ourselves into an impossible level of debt and future obligations.

    The author should be pointing out that needless consumption including voting for recklessly spending politicians is our biggest problem. We collectively encourage China to build two or three new coal-fired electric plants per week and grow ever more inefficient in our eagerness to buy their mostly cheap junk.

    The author should point out the evil of third world dictators who use their citizens as pawns in cynical games like “climate victimization”. The author should point out that people cut of from economic opportunity (e.g. like many in the Philippines) have high birth rates for survival purposes. The countries in the west with declining populations (and declining ecological footprints) are the inevitable result of economic progress.

  • Born2BeFree

    Susan,

    Clearly your “theology” is some sort of paganistic sun worship, no?

    As such, you could probably be classified as a witch.

    Didn’t they used to burn witches?

    You’re getting really close to inciting a mob to consider that action.

    Could you just get on your broomstick and flee?

    Better for all concerned.

    Thanks.

  • Jonas Jones

    The Saharan desert used to be a lush forest some 20,000 years ago (and evidence suggest that it will be again in another 20,000 years). Likely due to the cooler climate of the Ice Age. The planet has been warming ever since but we may be reaching an inflection point of cooling again. Remember, geologists and climate scientists all agree that we are in what is known as a “relatively warm period” as the history of the planet has it cooler than it is now but not as warm as it has been “recently”.

    Recent in the terms of the geology and climate of the planet are relative to the age of the Earth: 4.5 billion years. Believers of the THEORY that the Earth is 6,000 years old would have us believe that all of the evidence to the contrary was put here by the Creator just to confuse us or hide the truth. Well, that makes the Creator a deliberate liar with some other agenda other than being omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent: I don’t buy it!

    Ms. Thistlewaite suffers from the same problem as many others that make definitive statements about subjects of which they know nothing and that is a lack of FACTS. I think it would serve her well to talk about that of which she is well informed and leave scientific subjects to those that have an education in science.

  • Jonas Jones

    The Saharan desert used to be a lush forest some 20,000 years ago (and evidence suggest that it will be again in another 20,000 years). Likely due to the cooler climate of the Ice Age. The planet has been warming ever since but we may be reaching an inflection point of cooling again. Remember, geologists and climate scientists all agree that we are in what is known as a “relatively warm period” as the history of the planet has it cooler than it is now but not as warm as it has been “recently”.

    Recent in the terms of the geology and climate of the planet are relative to the age of the Earth: 4.5 billion years. Believers of the THEORY that the Earth is 6,000 years old would have us believe that all of the evidence to the contrary was put here by the Creator just to confuse us or hide the truth. Well, that makes the Creator a deliberate liar with some other agenda other than being omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent: I don’t buy it!

    Ms. Thistlewaite suffers from the same problem as many others that make definitive statements about subjects of which they know nothing and that is a lack of FACTS. I think it would serve her well to talk about that of which she is well informed and leave scientific subjects to those that have an education in science.

  • jeb_jackson

    So, Susan, don’t reckon you’d consider the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah the result of sin, would you?

    Nah! Didn’t think so!

  • davido22

    Thank you Dr. Brooks Thistlethwaite and your statements. The unfortunate comments below show a deep passion in their denial and tell me you are striking close to home. People do not want to be responsible for their actions (nor admit their guilt). Many do not want to give up money, wealth and comfort even at the expense of the ‘least of these.’ I try to have compassion for the deniers below although I am amazed at their fear. Even if climate change is a myth, reducing fossil fuel consumption cleans the air, reduces our dependence on oil dictators and the military, cleans our water, reduces childhood emphysema, encourages local food jobs, on and on. Who cannot have compassion for those victims of the hurricane, how can we have compassion for those who deny their role in harming our planet?

  • GuarionexSandoval

    Oh, Susan, you theologically-impoverished political opportunist. This storm ties at 21st place for storm strength, did you forget to include that in your moral calculus? Did you forget that global warming ceased back in 1997 or that the atmospheric temperature has been decreasing since the early 2000s? So, I suppose you could claim, in an post hoc, ergo propter hoc manner, that man is responsible either way. And if storm strength or destructiveness of natural disasters have any component of moral evil, then humans are at the very bottom of the culpability scale since the greatest natural disasters occurred before humans ever trod the surface of this planet. I have got to wonder, though, over your fixation on assigning some sort of moral blame to humans when the driver of climate is the solar cycle combined with orbital variations over which human activity can exert no influence at all. Is it actually because you and your utopian confreres can, as you cannot with natural causes, bank off what you claim to be human moral failing in order to posit your plan for salvation which just happens to include you guys firmly ensconced in the driver’s seat of the world economy and in control over everyone’s actions, for their own good, of course, and for the good of the planet? History of the environmental movement (and every other leftist utopian statist movement) would show this to be true. Oh, yeah, it was human greed that was causing desertification, acid rain, loss of frogs, thinning of the ozone layer, cancer, thinning bird shells, etc and we could all be saved if only we would turn away from a free market industrial society and embrace our destiny as socialists living in tune with nature as defined by those who would make the proper choices for society. Geez, grow up.

  • GuarionexSandoval

    “I try to have compassion for the deniers below although I am amazed at their fear. Even if climate change is a myth, reducing fossil fuel consumption cleans the air, reduces our dependence on oil dictators and the military, cleans our water, reduces childhood emphysema, encourages local food jobs, on and on.”

    The fear of “the deniers”? Ha ha ha. You are so meme-ridden it is actually shocking. We in the United States are not dependent on “oil dictators.” If you are referring to Saudi Arabia, about 2/3 of imported oil come from non-OPEC countries. Canada is the largest source of imported petroleum. Saudi Arabia is second, followed by the oil dictators of Mexico, Venezuela, and Nigeria. And the United States is now the world’s second largest oil and natural gas producer.

    The two single largest causes of emphysema are cigarette smoke and marijuana smoke, neither of which are responsible for childhood emphysema. On a worldwide scale, the percentage of deaths among, say, 10-14 year old children, due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a little over 1%. Not 1% of all deaths, 1% of deaths from non-communicable diseases. And a major part of those deaths are among children who breathe a lot of smoke from cooking fires in Third World nonindustrial societies that a liberal application of fossil fuels in the form of electrical generation would save them from. And those deaths are minuscule compared to those from drinking dirty water.

    Want to show compassion and save lives? Industrialize the rest of the world as quickly as possible. Fossil fuels have produced the cleanest, richest, most healthful environments in which humans have ever lived.

  • piperrazor

    She is serious? No knowledge of IPCC findings indicating no correlation between so called “extreme events” and “climate change”? No historical research regarding frequency and relative strength of “extreme events” of the past (note: even a rudimentary level of research shows that extreme events are no more extreme nor more frequent than they have been in the past)? Sad that this sort of drivel is allowed to be published.

  • Greenchange

    Thank you, Professor. The religious argument against Climate Change Denial is a powerful one; and as such, invokes strong reaction (see 62 negative and/or insulting Comments above.) It also is the only one that will win out in the long run. Science will never convince vested interests with probability ranges e. g. the future remains just a hypothesis, we have to go there to really find out. But people of Faith are instructed in simple and direct ways to “do the right thing.” Certainly, turning a blind eye to a probable climatic disaster is not part of that Teaching.