EDITORIAL: Haiyan reveals threats faced by island nations

The scenes of devastation in the Philippines, the staggering death toll and the challenges of providing disaster aid are all beyond belief.

Typhoon Haiyan was predicted to be the strongest typhoon ever to hit the Philippines. It has lived up to that forecast. By some estimates, at least 10,000 people have died as winds reaching 190 mph tore through a swath of the central Philippines. Until searchers can comb through the debris in Tacloban and other towns and villages, the full lethality of the typhoon will not be known.

The immediate focus must be on providing relief to hundreds of thousands of people without homes, electricity, hospitals, food and safe drinking water. Destroyed airports, roads and bridges, as well as widespread looting and angry mobs, will complicate the task.

Not surprisingly, the typhoon is sparking debate on whether the fury of this storm can be attributed to climate change. That is a tricky business. It is difficult to attribute a single meteorological event to longer-term warming of the climate, caused largely by fossil fuel emissions. But what most scientists will tell you is that rising sea levels and other impacts of climate change are sure to increase the severity and frequency of such disasters.

Interestingly, a climatologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kerry Emanuel, published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in July predicting that the frequency as well as the intensity of tropical cyclones would increase. Based on his modeling, Emanuel suggests that the increases would be most prominent in the western North Pacific, which is where Haiyan struck.

Whether this typhoon can be linked to global warming, there is no doubt that leaders in the Philippines believe their country is vulnerable and are frustrated by the failure of industrialized nations to take the climate threat seriously.

Rising sea levels are just one of the challenges that island nations face in the South Pacific. Endemic poverty, poor building standards and depleted groundwater compound the threat. Yet well before Haiyan, those who live in the most vulnerable island nations were trying to get the world's attention on minimizing the worst possible impacts of climate change. Will they get it now?