We Cannot Go on Like This: Merkel Says on Tackling Climate Crisis After Floods

Germany Flooding
Destroyed houses are seen in Schuld, Germany, Thursday, July 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Less than three months before leaving office, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has openly conceded that the industrial world has failed to adequately fight climate change and that more rapid, pain-inducing steps were urgently needed.

Media reports said:

Merkel, who has led Europe’s largest economy and one of the world’s leading emitters of CO2 for the last 16 years, reflected on her own bitter experience.

Chancellor Merkel stressed the need to “speed up” the fight against climate crisis, as the death toll from devastating floods in Germany reached 177 on Thursday.

Merkel, who is retiring after September elections, said that Germany and other countries had “not done enough” to meet the goal set out in the Paris climate accord of capping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“We should not pretend that we have not done anything, but it is true that not enough has been done to reach the aim of staying well under two degrees and as close to 1.5 degrees as possible,” Merkel told reporters.

“That is not just true of Germany, but of many countries across the world, which is why we need to increase the tempo.”

Merkel had already called for faster climate action last Sunday as she visited flood victims in Rhineland-Palatinate state.

One of the regions worst hit by last week’s devastating floods, Rhineland-Palatinate said Thursday that its death toll had reached 128, taking the total count to 177 in Germany and 209 across Europe.

Merkel’s cabinet approved a huge emergency aid package Wednesday for flood-stricken regions, unlocking some 400 million euros ($470 million) in immediate relief.

She said society faced a “profound transformation” as European governments looked to reach carbon neutrality in the coming decades.

Merkel pointed to new emissions reductions targets agreed by her government earlier this year, which means Germany now aims to reach carbon neutrality by 2045, five years earlier than the previous target.

The move came after Germany’s highest court demanded the government revise its targets, which it said were not ambitious enough.

Britain’s climate defences need a flood of cash

That is the advice of the Environment Agency when it comes to climate crisis.

Another media report said:

Britain has woefully underfunded climate adaptation efforts, leaving its infrastructure at the mercy of extreme weather events, officials and experts warn.

July has been a month of floods, heat, and floods again. Recent days have offered a sharp reminder that the weather is becoming harder to predict, and its toll is set rise further in the years ahead.

Last week, the UK Met Office issued its first amber extreme heat warning. Images of flooding tube stations on Sunday followed hot on the heels of death and destruction in Germany and Belgium.

While Britain has not seen the level of damage recently endured by its European neighbors, it is only a matter of time, those tasked with managing the impact of climate change believe. That means the government needs to spend money at unprecedented level, if it is to mitigate the economic devastation of extreme weather.

Floods in the past 20 years have cost insurers billions of pounds, rendered many homes uninsurable, and devastated communities. Meanwhile, extreme heat is a silent killer, with deaths potentially causing an economic blow of £323m a year by 2050 with some estimates as high as £9.9bn, according to one estimate from the Climate Change Committee (CCC). And land prone to flooding is still being used to build homes.

But that’s in part due to a fundamental misinterpretation of the probability of flooding and other extreme weather events, according to Allan Beltran-Hernandez, a fellow in environmental economics at the London School of Economics.

People often think “that a one in 100-year event means that another one won’t happen for another 100 years. But the probabilities are independent of each other.” So if an area experiences the worst flooding its seen for century one year, that makes it no less likely that the following year won’t also face floods that are just as bad or worse.

A spokesperson for the Environment Agency, which covers England, told The Independent that it was investing “record amounts” to help protect communities from the threat of flooding. But it added that “further investment” will be needed in order to be “more resilient to a changing climate”.

But there is a problem, officials agree off record: no one even knows how expensive this problem of adapting to climate change is. The Environment Agency does not know how much to ask for.

There is no number that can readily be found to illustrate the total cost of climate change to the UK, explains Kathryn Brown, head of climate adaptation at the CCC, a statutory independent body set up under the powers of the 2008 Climate Change Act. It is meant to advise the government on emissions reduction targets and readiness for the impacts of the climate change emergency on the UK.

“The reason we do not have it is largely just because the government has not funded a study with enough resources to find out what that number is,” says Brown.

Brown tries to quantify the risks facing Britain from climate change and measure those against the efforts to mitigate those risks. Every five years the government has to publish a climate change risk assessment. The latest, produced in May this year, had a score card for the impact on infrastructure in the event the world average temperate by 2C or 4C. Using a range from Very High, costing billions a year to Low, costing less that £10m a year, the scorecard makes for troubling reading.

The government should prepare to spend billions each year by 2050 to defend key infrastructure from flooding, the report found. Temperature rises will bring both too much and too little water at times. The report predicted costs of at least hundreds of millions each year to try and manage risks to public water supplies from water shortages.

It has already spent more on flood defenses, £5.2bn for the next six years, than it has on its Levelling Up Fund, of £4.8bn up to 2025. Yet that is not even going to scratch the surface of the adaptation required, experts say. And that is only aimed at tackling flooding and not its combined impact along with issues like extreme heat.

But while the UK government has not put a number on the economic cost of adapting or failing to change as the world warms, others are starting to fill the gap.

Policymakers will have to act fast if they do not want to see the result of failings in politically sensitive areas such as mortgages. A 2020 study of house prices in Florida by Benjamin Keys and Philip Mulde at the US National Bureau of Economic Research found that risk of rising sea levels had a significant impact on house prices in the state.

It is noticeable in the UK, too. Immediately after a property is severely flooded it loses around 20 per cent of its value compared to a similar, unflooded property, according to a study by Beltran-Hernandez and colleagues at the University of Birmingham. Any sharp, sudden drop in prices adds to the risk of homeowners being pushed into negative equity, where their mortgage is worth more than their property.

Beyond assets such as houses, the breadth of the economic hit that severe events such as flooding have might have to be reconsidered according to Simon Wren-Lewis, an emeritus professor of economics and a fellow at Merton College Oxford: “At the moment flooding is just treated as a supply shock, and because it normally only impacts a few regions it’s not a huge shock nationally. If they become more frequent then this may need to change.”

Extreme weather: What causes flash flooding?

Flash flooding affects cities across the world and has become more common because of climate change.

Parts of London and the south of England were left underwater after heavy rain in July.

Flash floods usually happen during intense rainfall – when the amount of water is too much for drains and sewers to deal with.

It can occur very quickly and without much warning.

Roads can become unpassable, with vehicles abandoned and homes and shops damaged by floodwater.

Floods can affect key public infrastructure including transport networks and hospitals. In London, some hospitals had to ask patients to stay away after they lost power.

Urban areas are more likely to experience this type of “surface water” flooding because they have a lot of hard surfaces – everything from paved front gardens to roads, car parks and high streets.

When rain hits them it cannot soak into the ground as it would do in the countryside.

An example was seen when New York City was hit by Storm Elsa in July, flooding the subway system.

The city’s transit authority president, Sarah Feinberg, said “if the drains at the street level cannot handle the water, it goes over the curb and then makes things even worse”. Water had come through subway vents and down the stairs, she said.

In many places including much of the UK, old sewer systems were built based on historic rainfall projections.

Dr Veronica Edmonds-Brown of the University of Hertfordshire said the growth of London was also a problem as its Victorian era drainage system “cannot cope with the huge increase in population”.

Climate Crisis is Causing Flash Flood

Many factors contribute to flooding, but climate crisis makes extreme rainfall more likely.

A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture and so these storms become more intense.

According to Prof Hayley Fowler, director of the UK Climate Resilience Program, flash flooding used to be “relatively unusual”.

But she said warming means “these heavy short-duration bursts from thunderstorms which cause flash flooding are becoming more common”.

Ms Fowler’s research suggests flash floods – measured as 30mm of rain per hour – “will increase five fold by the 2080s“, if climate change continues on its current track.

What can be done?

Changes could be made in towns and cities to protect against the worst effects of flash floods.

Dr Linda Speight, a flood expert at Reading University, says urban areas could benefit from changes like “permeable pavements and green roofs that can help rain water to soak away rather than causing floods”.

Knowing that heavy rainfall is on its way can make it easier to mitigate against the risks of flash flooding.

Dr Speight says “weather and flood forecasting science has improved rapidly and it is now often possible to forecast surface water flooding events in advance”.

Living away from a river does not necessarily mean you are safe from flooding.

The UK Met Office recommends creating a flood plan, for example moving valuables out of the basement and to a safe place.

It is also possible to take preventative measures.

If you are making changes to your home, choose tiled flooring instead of carpets and move plug sockets further up the wall.

Drivers also need to be careful to avoid rising waters, as many flood-related deaths are in vehicles.

According to the AA, just 30cm of water is enough to move a car.

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