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Climate

The West Ignores Cyclones at Its Own Peril

Overdue lessons from a new storm

Earth and cyclones.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

If you woke up this morning and wanted to read about the debt ceiling, the end of Title 42, or last night’s episode of Succession, you didn’t have to do much digging. But if you were looking for an update about Cyclone Mocha, the strongest North Indian Ocean storm on record, which approached Myanmar over the weekend as a category 5, you would have needed to scroll — and scroll and scroll.

Though headlines about the cyclone eventually started to trickle onto homepages by the late afternoon Monday, America’s inward focus is not surprising or new. But the relative silence on Cyclone Mocha on Monday morning illustrated something worrying: The West is ignoring cyclones at its own peril.

Cyclone Mocha: deadly storm wreaks havoc in Myanmarwww.youtube.com

Tropical cyclones, typhoons, and hurricanes are all names for what is essentially the same weather phenomenon, produced when warm, moist air over the ocean rises and a low-pressure area below is filled with new, cooler air, which then also warms and rises, creating a feedback loop that rotates around an “eye.” When these systems form in the North Atlantic or in the central or eastern North Pacific, they spin counterclockwise, are called hurricanes, and get round-the-clock coverage in The New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press, and CNN; when they form in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean, they swirl clockwise, are called cyclones, and are lucky to make U.S. front pages.

Cyclone Mocha could also fairly be described as a monster. The storm “lies at the upper end of the size spectrum for tropical cyclones,” Yale Climate Connections writes. Some 1.8 million people in Myanmar are in the path of hurricane-force winds, including “tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees housed in camps near Sittwe who received a direct hit from the cyclone.” Loss of life from the “catastrophic flooding” due to rain and storm surge is already being reported, although fortunately, it appears the worst-case crisis that experts had feared may be averted.

Cyclone Mocha should still serve as a wake-up call for the West. For one thing, it’s yet another warning that human-caused global warming is leading to increasingly dangerous and fast-developing weather patterns worldwide. The Bay of Bengal, where Cyclone Mocha formed, is running about 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above average this year, which explains the cyclone’s unusual intensification, Axios reports (though as one researchercautioned the publication, more study would be needed to definitively tie Mocha’s intensification to climate change). Notably, the same principle of warming oceans producing monster storms applies to the physics of U.S.-bound hurricanes, too.

There also might be literal financial repercussions for these sorts of storms. The Global South is beginning to hold the Global North financially accountable for damage caused by affluent nations’ outsized contributions to climate change, including via reparations preliminarily agreed upon at the last U.N. climate summit. “The less affluent countries feel aggrieved because, historically, the likes of South Asia and East Africa have contributed only infinitesimally to the processes behind climate breakdown,” Foreign Policy has explained, but they’re still facing annual damages from climate change that could be in the hundreds of billions of dollars by 2030. For instance, Myanmar, one of the most vulnerable nations to extreme weather events, is only responsible for 0.04% of historic cumulative CO2 emissions, or about 0.1% annually in 2021. For comparison, that’s on par with just 750,000 U.S. homes — about 100,000 fewer than there are in the single New York City borough of Queens.

Cyclones are also getting more expensive and deadly. Though some research has indicated cyclones are becoming less frequent due to climate change, global warming is causing the storms that do form to be more intense. “There were 412,644 deaths … and 466.1 million people affected by cyclones between 1980 and 2009,” one 2013 study of cyclone-related literature found, predicting the future would be even worse. A separate 2021 study likewise concluded that 40% more people might be exposed to cyclones in 2050 if populations continue to rise.

If this doesn’t feel like “our problem” now, it will be soon. Bangladesh, Myanmar, and West Bengal, India, are major crop and textile-producing regions, and disruptions can send reverberations through the markets and create supply-chain bottlenecks. The chaos and recovery from storms can also exacerbate “civil tensions, forced migration, and even conflict,” a study published earlier this year pointed out. “Forced migration” is a disturbing new possibility as people fleeing war and conflict are doubly displaced by climate threats, as is the case for the Rohingya enduring Mocha now.

You might not have realized it from reading the news, but Cyclone Mocha isn’t even the only record-breaking cyclone to have made landfall this year. In February and March, Cyclone Freddy slammed into Malawi, Mozambique, and Madagascar, killing hundreds. It was the longest-lasting and highest-energy storm ever to form in the southern hemisphere (and possibly worldwide).

Storms like these are humanitarian tragedies but also information tragedies. The West can only afford to have its attention elsewhere for so long. Even if such cyclones feel a world away, it’s only ever a matter of time before they aren’t.

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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