What is the true cost of climate change? Ask Filipinos. They know.

They know because one storm claimed more than 6,000 lives and inflicted $14 billion in economic damage. They know because they have experienced loss – and loss is a powerful teacher.

When it comes to climate change, the Philippines is the third most vulnerable country in the world, according to a study released by the United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security and the German Alliance Development Works. It is a tropical archipelago besieged by no less than 20 storms a year.

WWF was in Tacloban, the city that was hardest hit by Typhoon Haiyan, two months before the storm hit. The city’s leaders predicted the coming of a mega-storm within a decade. They were right, only it came sooner than expected.

Climate disasters are a reality that millions of Asians have had to face early. How much carbon Filipinos emit is beside the point: stronger and more frequent storms will assail their homes regardless. So how should they prepare for a climate-defined future?

Like all crises, basics come first. These include enhancing food security, water and flood management, maintaining a balanced energy mixture, all-weather access and transport, health, human capital, sustainable land use, plus climate-smart urban development. Development must be evaluated through a bifocal climate lens: mitigation looks at the reduction of carbon, while adaptation considers the management of risk.

For the past four years, WWF has been developing a study to prepare 12 – soon to be 16 – of the largest Philippines cities to adapt to climate change. We found that the effects of climate change do not take place uniformly. They are non-linear and site-specific. A city built along misty mountains, such as Baguio, will face different challenges than those of coastal enclaves like Davao. To be effective, planning and responses should be area-specific. Even if your city is spared from droughts or floods, refugees from hard-hit areas will stream in. Will you refuse them entry? Cities need to act in alliance, beyond their boundaries.

Climate-proofing vital lifelines like roads, airports, seaports and communication hubs will be a unique sales proposition for both the private and public sector. The North Luzon Expressway’s Candaba Viaduct, for example, links Metro Manila with landlocked northern provinces even in the monsoon, allowing the uninterrupted entry and exit of supplies. In contrast is Tacloban airport, which sits by the sea. When Haiyan hit, five-metre-high waves crippled air-transportation facilities, cutting off the city from the air. When roads are impassable – when airports, seaports and communication lines shut down – business stops. Reducing downtime maximizes the ability to bounce back from disasters, ensuring stable profit.

The human footprint dramatically aggravates vulnerability. Asia Pacific’s footprint is 77% beyond the region’s limits. In 2012, the Philippine Climate Change Commission revealed that Filipinos consumed 2.02 times the amount permitted by available resources and their country’s carbon-absorption capacity. Mitigation is important, even if many countries that contribute the least to global carbon emissions are the most vulnerable, having fewer resources to cope with disasters. Large emitters must take the lead, but all countries must contribute.

As developing countries progress, their greenhouse gas emissions rise. Though the Philippines currently contributes less than 0.35% of global emissions, its share will spike due to economic and population growth. It has one of the most expensive power rates in Asia. Prioritizing indigenous renewable-energy options, veering away from fossil fuels and optimizing energy use are the best paths to a low-cost, low-carbon future.

WWF is currently involved in a global campaign called Seize Your Power. The movement calls on financial institutions, private investors, pension and sovereign wealth funds, plus governments to significantly increase investments in renewable energy and divest itself from fossil fuels. While it is important for governments to provide a stable policy framework, the role of the business community in our transition to a low-carbon future cannot be overemphasized. This will save the Philippines billions of dollars and thousands of lives.

The Philippine Department of Energy already pledged to triple the nation’s renewable-energy capacity from 5,400 to more than 15,000 megawatts – a switch requiring investments of $12.4 billion over the next 16 years. The climate challenge covers the way we grow our crops and manage our watersheds. No country can live without food and water. A growing nation must learn to produce more, with less.

The lessons of Typhoons Ondoy, Pepeng and Haiyan should be heeded. By developing correctly and rebuilding right, you honour the memory of those you have lost.

Lastly, take pride – for in the face of climate change, the Filipino people remain unbowed. Already, leaders from the private and public sectors are blazing brave new trails to address today’s climate challenges. You must seize opportunities. There is no future but what you make of the present.

Author: Yolanda Kakabadse is President of WWF International and a co-chair of World Economic Forum on East Asia

Image: Fishermen ride on their boats as dark clouds loom over metro Manila September 21, 2013. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco