The recent floods in Germany and Belgium were estimated to be the worst in at least 500 years. At the time of going to press, around 205 people had been killed, another 176 were missing and barely found alive, and property damage ran into billions.
A note of astonishment was heard in the reporting that followed. It was “unimaginable that something like this could happen in Germany,” said a Red Cross driver Reuters. “Have you ever imagined that something like this would happen here in Germany?” a CBS reporter asked a local resident. “I don’t think anyone could have imagined … something like that,” he replied. “So many people are dead,” another resident told a reporter. “In Germany you don’t expect people to die in a flood. You might expect it in poor countries, but you don’t expect it here.”
The shock on display reflects the widespread and ingrained belief that climate change is not going to happen Yes, really affect rich countries. Residents of developed countries have long been used to the most damaging natural disasters that mostly hit impoverished nations – while wealthy places can be hit by hurricanes, earthquakes, or floods, they have been largely protected by their superior building codes and well-funded emergency services.
But that is no longer the case. Poor countries are hit worse by climate disasters, but even the richest, most technologically advanced countries are already being hammered, and things will get much worse in the future.
The flood damage in Germany surprised local scientists who spent years preparing for extreme floods with huge amounts of money – and even sent out advance warnings to the affected areas. The Germans “stupidly congratulated us on predicting something so early,” said hydrologist Hannah Cloke science. The problem appears to be that previously, researchers focused mostly on larger rivers that had caused previous floods, while this unusual event struck tributaries that were considered less risky. (Fortunately, the Netherlands had broadened its flood control efforts and as a result suffered far fewer deaths.)
The disaster was classic Climate change – caused by a bizarre, slow moving storm that drained an enormous amount of rain in a very small space in a short time. The changing, warming climate means that there is no longer any “normal”. Past weather patterns are less useful every year, and disaster can and will hit where you least expect it. Even if you’ve spent years putting safeguards in place, you can easily be overwhelmed by unprecedented freak events made more likely by the warming. And since global emissions have not decreased at all, this is just the beginning.
Well, of course, it is not wealth useless in protecting people from climate change. Without a doubt, the death toll would have been exponentially higher if Haiti or Chad had been hit by a similar flood. The point is that both the governments of rich nations and their people profoundly deny the dire threat climate change poses to them.
The United States is, of course, by far the worst offender. The nominally climate-friendly Democrats are currently running the federal government, and they are currently discussing an infrastructure package with climate shares about 10 percent as large as President Biden proposed in the 2020 election campaign, and even that wasn’t nearly enough. Current bipartisan infrastructure negotiations have stalled in part because of Republican demands that the decade-old 80-20 funding split between highways and public transportation – basically a climate suicide pact – inclined even more away from transit.
All of this happens in a year where Portland, Oregon was boiling in temperatures like Atlanta or Dallas, extreme drought hit almost half the country, another very severe season of wildfires choked the skies from Seattle to New York, and future Miami drowning became fatal current drowning of Miami. We haven’t even got to August.
But it’s not just America. If we define a rich country that is doing its part to fight climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions per person to, for example, 9 tonnes per year (adjusted for trade effects), then here are just a handful of rich countries that get into work: Denmark , UK, France, Spain, Italy, Norway, Netherlands, Ireland and Sweden. Canada (which recently hit the worst heatwave ever) and Australia (where the constant bobbing between extreme drought and extreme rain recently created a terrible mouse plague) are behaving almost as badly as the US Germany has made only modest strides in a decade despite one major expansion of wind and solar power, in part because it foolishly decided to shut down its nuclear power plants before renewable energy replacements were ready.
People with privileges generally cannot believe that they are facing the same problems that affect the poor until it happens. We saw this during the pandemic when a great many wealthy people were driven into being unable to buy their way out of the situation. These unfortunate Germans will not be the last to learn that development and money do not immunize people from climate catastrophes.