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By Steve Shallhorn

Storm damage

The roar of typhoon Tokage was a warning to Japan. Are we listening?

Steve Shallhorn, a Canadian, is Executive Director of Greenpeace Japan

Japan will probably remember the Niigata earthquake as the most significant natural disaster to hit Japan this year. However, the typhoons of 2004 were more deadly, and caused havoc over a wider area. Unlike earthquakes, action can and should be taken to lessen the terrible impact of these storms.

We know the grim statistics for this year’s typhoon season: More than 200 dead; the highest number of typhoons to hit Japan in a season; the strongest typhoon on record; two super typhoons in as many weeks; direct damages into the billions of yen, with many indirect costs of lost time and business.

The cause of typhoons themselves is well understood and scientifically proven. They start as thunderstorms over warm water with unstable atmospherics. Add local unfavorable wind conditions, especially at high altitudes, and rotation of the earth that adds to the spin of the weather system. Presto, you have a typhoon.

As early as August, NHK was showing charts of the Pacific Ocean east of Japan. Thanks to the high-quality graphics, viewers could see that warm water had moved much further north than usual. NHK explained this meant that typhoons where forming more northerly than in the past, which accounted for why southern Japan was hit early in the season with so many of the storms.

What NHK didn’t do was explain why warm water had moved northwards. It did not make the link between greater typhoon damage and climate change—that is, global warming.

The documented rise in air temperatures is caused by the burning of fossil fuels and the subsequent release of greenhouse gases trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere, which produces changes in temperature in the world’s ocean currents.

The models of the experts at the International Panel on Climate Change predict changes in the world’s ocean currents. The American National Oceans and Atmosphere Administration this year released a report noting that typhoons would become more intense because of the rise in ocean temperatures that generate the storms.

In November, the Arctic Council, which is made up of the eight countries that have territory north of the Arctic Circle, including the United States, added its voice to the dangers of climate change. The Council concluded that warmer temperatures caused mostly by the human release of greenhouse gases are causing Arctic ice to melt at a rate unprecedented in human times, which is causing a rise in global ocean levels. This melt water is also affecting the temperate of ocean currents around the world, including those around Japan.

So why hasn’t Japan’s government taken stronger action, or, for that matter, why has the US refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol? The answer is that in both countries, industry lobby groups whisper the same mantra: “Climate change is only a theory; it’s not scientifically proven”

But governments take action on all sorts of things that are not scientifically proven. Japan plans to spend at least a trillion yen to protect against a missile launch from North Korea, even though there is no scientific proof that an attack will happen. Instead, a judgment is made on what is known about Korea—it’s a totalitarian regime with no democratic controls, it issues bellicose statements against its neighbors, and it has tested a missile that flew over Japan.

With the documented rise of sea levels, and the prediction by scientists at the Arctic Council that levels are going to rise higher, and faster, the alarming reality is that Japan’s infrastructure may be inadequate against the new, increased typhoon threat. Some of the deaths this year were caused after the breaching of sea walls by especially high waves, destroying houses that relied on the walls for protection. What has protected in the past will not do so in the future. The integrity of existing walls needs to be examined, as many may have been weakened or have had their foundations undermined.

There are a number of other things that Japan must do to. First, it must re-commit to its earlier program of subsidies to encourage the use of solar power. Earlier inducements led to the creation in Japan of the world’s top two solar companies. But, inexplicably, these subsidies will be removed next year.

Second, Japan should commit to an emergency program to build wind turbines. This technology has rapidly improved, and Japan is lagging far behind other countries in wind energy production.

Third, both domestic and commercial Japanese buildings should be built to much higher heat efficiency standards. This will lower energy costs to consumers while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Fourth, the government of Japan should use its influence at the United Nations—including its new two-year seat on the Security Council—to push for KyotoPlus, an agreement that will plug some of the holes in the initial treaty.

These and other measures can be financed by ending the scandalous subsidies to fossil fuels and failed nuclear technology, and by channeling those funds into renewable energy.

The dangerous effects of climate change are with us here and now. We are going to have take action to change the way we use and generate electricity. Our survival depends on it.

Would you like to comment on this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.