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November 13, 2013

A Single Tragedy, a Global Crisis

There's still a lot we don't know about Typhoon Haiyan and its aftermath, but we know enough: thousands dead and many more still in danger. A staggering 9.5 million people were affected by the storm. Six days after Haiyan hit, rescuers still haven't been able to reach dozens of cities and towns, some of which were virtually obliterated.

Here's what we can do today: Contribute to one of the many relief organizations that are responding to the tragedy.

Was Haiyan the largest typhoon ever to make landfall? Does that even matter? To see how monstrous the storm really was, just look at this image that shows how it would have appeared off the U.S. East Coast. Apologies in advance for any nightmares this gives you.

Ironically, even as the people of the Philippines began the grim job of digging out from the destruction, delegates from nearly 200 nations were gathering in Poland for the 19th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. By 2015, they hope to have an international climate action agreement to replace the now-expired Kyoto Protocol -- with the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 3-4 degrees F above preindustrial levels.

Once upon a time, in a world before storms like Haiyan, Sandy, and Katrina, it seemed reasonable to pin our hopes on a UN climate agreement or on a U.S. cap-and-trade bill. You have a problem, you sign a treaty or pass a bill and consider it solved. We no longer live in such a world. Climate disruption is already killing thousands, and scientists tell us that we're on a path for much worse. There are times when the human race seems like an emphysemic smoker who has a heart attack, pops an aspirin, and reaches for another pack.

Right now, the people of the Philippines need humanitarian aid. But ultimately, we owe them -- and ourselves -- another commitment: We must eliminate the fossil fuels that are -- let's not mince words -- killing our planet.

It's not that we're doing nothing to achieve that goal. We're doing it as individuals by choosing clean energy options like electric cars and solar panels. We're doing it as communities by fighting to retire coal plants or pass fracking moratoriums. We're doing it in our cities, as when Los Angeles committed to replace coal with clean energy by 2025. We're doing it regionally, as when -- just a couple of weeks ago -- the leaders of British Columbia, California, Oregon, and Washington signed the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy to reduce emissions and transition toward renewables. And, yes, we're doing it nationally and internationally, as when the Treasury Department reaffirmed last month that the U.S. will end financial support for new coal projects overseas.

But we're still not doing what we already know we need to do quickly enough. In a world where we should be going out of our way to tackle this climate crisis, we're still exporting natural gas, considering tar-sands pipelines, and patting ourselves on the back for figuring out clever ways to drill more oil.

We can take two greater lessons from the horror of Typhoon Haiyan. One, the tragedy that has touched the Philippines today could have happened anywhere on this troubled planet. Two, this is but a foretaste of the misery we will call down upon ourselves if we fail to muster the kind of resolve that Winston Churchill did when called to lead his nation to victory. How will we succeed? By pursuing a 100 percent clean energy future "with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us."

The alternative? There is no alternative.

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