The recent catastrophic flooding across the Rhine basin and into Belgium and the Netherlands must be taken as a warning by countries across Europe and elsewhere of the increasingly urgent need to do more to adapt to and prepare for climate change.
The full cost of the damage is not yet known, but repairs are likely to run into billions and take many months.
While it is too early to know precisely the extent of climate change, scientists fear that damage caused by emissions is producing even worse extreme weather events than predicted. Brutal heatwaves seen recently along the western seaboard of the United States and Canada, as well as in Siberia and other parts of the world, are further evidence of an increasingly hostile climate — and the need to adapt to it, fast.
The pictures from Germany underscore the dangers that climate change poses even to the world’s most advanced economies. While Europe has done more than most to attempt to mitigate the risks — the European Commission recently proposed the most ambitious package of climate measures yet by a major economy — these will not reverse changes that have already happened. Carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for about 100 years.
A certain amount of warming — and the extreme weather events associated with it — is already baked into our future making adaptation a necessity even if the Paris Agreement targets are met. Scientists warn that the recent floods and heatwaves are not the new normal, rather they herald the end of a stable climate. And without action, according to the World Bank, up to 132 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty by climate change by 2030.
Patrick Verkooijen (left) and Ban Ki-moon
These warnings must urge us into faster action, with more funding, to adapt and find ways to work with the natural world rather than against it.
By accelerating investment today, we can prevent billions — even trillions —worth of economic damage and save many thousands of lives. A Global Commission on Adaptation report found that investing $1.8 trillion (€1.5 trillion) globally by 2030 in just five key areas, including climate-resilient infrastructure, such as stronger dams and drainage systems, and early warning systems could generate $7.1 trillion in total net benefits.
Some excellent climate-resilience projects already exist. In Germany, the new district of HafenCity within Hamburg is being built on raised plinths, lifting the whole area at least eight meters above sea level. In the Netherlands, engineers have been working on “Room for the River,” a program to widen and deepen the rivers Rhine, Meuse, Waal and IJssel to protect nearby cities and towns. Besides creating additional water channels, flood-prone buildings have been removed and additional storage basins created with farmers co-operating to allow agricultural areas to be flooded as required.
In China, where floods have caused on average ¥251 billion ($38 billion, €33 billion) of damage annually in the decade to 2016, so-called sponge cities such as Xiangyang Han River Eco City now feature more water-absorbent areas including green roofs, fewer hard surfaces, and more efficient water channels and storage.
Unprecedented flooding — caused by two months’ worth of rainfall in two days — has resulted in devastating damage in western Europe, leaving at least 209 people dead in Germany and Belgium. Narrow valley streams swelled into raging floods in the space of hours, wiping out centuries-old communities. Rebuilding the ruined homes, businesses and infrastructure is expected to cost billions of euros.
Extreme flooding across northern Europe also hit the United Kingdom, with parts of London swamped by fast-rising waters as almost a month of rain fell in a single day. Subway stations were quickly flooded and streets submerged. The flash flooding showed that “the dangers of climate change are now moving closer to home,” said London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
Record floods have also hit parts of India and central China, overwhelming dams and drains and flooding streets. The downpours have been particularly heavy, even for the rainy season. Scientists have predicted that climate change will lead to more frequent and intense rainfall — warmer air holds more water, creating more rain.
Days of record-breaking rainfall also caused devastating flooding across China’s central Henan province in late July. Scores people have been killed, hundreds of thousands displaced — and many are still unaccounted missing. In the provincial capital Zhengzhou, people were trapped in an underground railway when it was inundated with water. Rural areas are said to have been hit even worse.
As nations flood in northern Europe, southern countries like Greece have been in the grip of several heat waves in the early summer. In the first week of July, temperatures soared to 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit). Tourism hot spots like the Acropolis were forced to shut during the day, while the extreme heat also sparked forest fires outside Thessaloniki, which helicopters tried to douse.
“It is an unprecedented reality in Sardinia’s history,” said Sardinia’s Governor Christian Salinas of the ongoing wildfires that have scorched the historic central western area of Montiferru. “So far, 20,000 hectares of forest that represent centuries of environmental history of our island have gone up in ashes.” Around 1,200 people have been evacuated across the still-burning region.
Intense heat is becoming more common, as seen in late June in the US states of Washington and Oregon and the Canadian province of British Columbia. Scorching temperatures under a “heat dome,” hot air trapped for days by high pressure fronts, caused hundreds of heat-related deaths. The village of Lytton recorded a high of 49.6 Celsius (121 Fahrenheit) — and burned to the ground the next day.
The heat wave may be over but dry conditions are fueling one of the region’s most intense wildfire seasons. Oregon’s Bootleg Fire, which has burned an area the size of Los Angeles in just two weeks, is so big it’s creating its own weather and sending smoke all the way to New York. A recent study said the weather conditions would have been “virtually impossible” without human-caused climate change.
To the south, central Brazil is suffering its worst drought 100 years, increasing the risk of fires and further deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Researchers recently reported that a large swath of the southeastern Amazon has flipped from absorbing to emitting planet-warming CO2 emissions, pushing the rainforest closer to a “tipping point.”
After years of unrelenting drought, more than 1.14 million people in Madagascar are food-insecure, with some now forced to eat raw cactus, wild leaves and locusts in famine-like conditions. With the absence of natural disaster, crop failure or political conflict, the dire situation in the southeastern African nation is said to be first famine in modern history caused solely by climate change.
The number of people fleeing conflict and natural disasters hit a 10-year high in 2020, with a record 55 million people relocating within their own country. That’s in addition to some 26 million people who fled across borders. A joint report released by refugee monitors in May found that three-quarters of the internally displaced were victims of extreme weather — and that number is likely to grow.
On their own, however, these projects are not enough. One of the greatest challenges of climate adaptation is that responsibility spans many diverse authorities, at the local, regional and national level.
Extreme heat, floods and storms also require precautionary planning and upfront investment in adaptation measures.
This makes it imperative that we share successful strategies and transfer knowledge and solutions wherever appropriate. To understand the scale of action needed, as well as measure success, governments and the private sector must carry out climate vulnerability assessments and stress tests to evaluate the risk of damage from flooding and heat stress. They must incorporate the resulting data into planning and investments, and closely monitor progress toward greater resilience.
We need to act fast. Gathering detailed knowledge will also allow us to better protect vulnerable groups, which usually suffer disproportionately more.
These recent extreme weather events have shown that the climate emergency is an all-of-society and all-of-world problem. It is encouraging to read that the US and the EU are planning to increase their contributions to help developing countries fight climate change, but all developed countries must now deliver on their promise to jointly mobilize $100 billion a year in finance for both mitigation and adaptation in developing countries.
As the floods in Europe and China have shown, we need to accelerate adaptation efforts worldwide to ensure we are as well placed as possible to deal with whatever our newly unstable climate unleashes next. And we need to do it now.
Ban Ki-moon is 8th Secretary-General of the United Nations. Patrick Verkooijen is CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation in Rotterdam.