No, climate change didn’t “cause 242 deaths” in Europe’s floods

Can we say “we told you so” now? Ignoring ecologists’ warnings about bad land management – along with poor governance and costcutting – caused those deaths at least as much as the climate crisis did.

Last week twice as many people died in floods in one small area in rural Germany than die in the entire U.S. in an average year of floods and hurricanes combined. In the media – and it’s safe to assume, the general public – the climate crisis is taken to be a primary cause of the disaster and its 242 deaths, 184 of them in Germany.  This assumption is factually incorrect.

Although the climate crisis is well on its way to being the biggest environmental catastrophe in human history, experts have calculated that climate change only modestly increased the intensity of last week’s storm. It was indeed a 400-year storm, that is, the kind that happens on average, without climate change, once in 400 years. The question is, are the 184 deaths and $34 billion in damages in Germany normal for a 400 year storm with a slight climate-induced intensification? (By comparison, Hurricane Sandy caused twice as much damage and one and a half times as many deaths across the entire eastern U.S., Canada and Caribbean over ten days, as occured in about two days in just a few counties in Germany.)

The answer is no, it’s not normal. Even a 400-year storm does not normally cause this much destruction. The primary cause wasn’t climate, as the experts have calculated. It had to be something else and that something was a massive failure of governance and decades of intentional disregard for basic principles of hydrology and ecological land management. The principles have been understood for at least a century and in some cases, such as “don’t build in a flood plain”, millenia. They’re not new or controversial. They’re things everyone learns in mid-level college courses on the topics. And they predict precisely these kind of disasters.

The ecological principles in question are essential to prudent land-use planning and flood and river managment to protect the safety of people and the health of our land, water, soil, flora and fauna. In essence it’s about using the earth’s natural flood defenses instead of fighting them by using concrete as a weapon in an attempt to beat nature into submission.

The clearest explanation of the situation I know of appeared, interestingly, in a book about landscape history from 1956, and it explains perfectly the conditions that enabled last week’s floods, and nearly all urban floods everywhere.

The 2021 floods explained – in a book from 1956

Flood protection that works with, rather than against, nature is only possible if it’s planned and coordinated across landscapes and regions. There’s only one way to do that and it’s called government, and there has to be some degree or regional cooperation. You could have a king or dictator forcing the cooperation, or you could have democratically elected represenatitves do it, but what doesn’t work for landscape and flood planning are approaches such as every-man-for-himself individualism, neoliberal politics, and “small government”. The very purpose of neoliberalism and small government is to deter precisely the sort of regional coordination that is necessary to prevent these kinds of disasters. Leaving things like flood planning and emergency preparedness entirely up to separate states, municipalities, “the market” or “personal choice” are exactly what you’d do if you wanted to make flooding cause as much damage as it did last week.

There is no way to sugarcoat this: neoliberalism and “states’ rights” killed several dozen people last week in one of the world’s richest countries.

Disasters can only occur where there’s vulnerability

All impacts from natural disasters arise from two things. One is the intensity of the cause, which in this case was a storm exacerbated by climate change. I won’t discuss this further  because there’s plenty of information on it elswhere. Here I want to focus on the second factor, which is vulnerability to harm – how much a thing can resist damage, or tolerate some damage and then recover. It’s the vulneratbility to harm that was amplified by poor ecological planning and chipping away at government services in the following ways:

  • Too much paving: Paving over too much open land makes the stormwater flow quickly into the rivers instead of soaking into soil. This worsened the floods enough to cause many of the deaths. “Flash floods” don’t just happen because of sudden heavy rain, they happen because of too much pavement. Germany – which is a little smaller than Montana – paves over an area equal to 120 football fields per day. That’s like adding a city the size of Frankfurt every year.
  • Annhilation of natural rivers: The rivers in the regions had been straightened so they no longer meander like they naturally do, and the wide natural foodplains that normally absorb great quantities of flood water had been eradicated. Both of these things squeeze the water in the rivers into a small area and make it flow faster and more prone to overlowing the banks. If you wanted to cause as many bad floods as possible this is exactly how you’d do it.
  • Neoliberalism, austerity and small government: Forty years of insistence that markets will solve everything, government is the problem, and public spending is the enemy is one of several reasons why Germany has what could be the worst emergency warning system of any advanced, rich country. There was a test of the system last year, and it just plain didn’t work. The austerity has also decimated the environmental protection agencies so they have few personnel left to address the paving and river-straightening (“channelization”) problems.
  • Pathological federalism: Germany tends to push as many decisions as possible to the lowest level of government possible. In this case it meant the federal or state government’s only duty was to provide the basic weather information to the towns. So each town or county essentially had to create and manage its own emergency warning and planning systems. That’s a bad way to do things and the way we know this is that it made people die.
  • Cultural factors: Then course there are the people who won’t flee a danger zone even when adequately warned. I suspect this caused a lot of the deaths. It’s a cultural-psychological-social issue and honestly I’m not sure you can do much about it. You would think the ones who get rescued after staying put should be sent a bill for it unless they can prove they had clear and indisputable reasons. It’s only fair to  the taxpayers.

All these factors are not unique to Germany. They play a role in most flood-related disasters in the richer countries, although the federalism is especially pronounced here. Will Germany learn from the 180 deaths and make any changes? Angela Merkel’s successor as the next chancellor after the elections in September, provided their party wins, was asked this question and his answer was, “You don’t go changing your policies just because of something that happened on one single day.” He’s the governor of the state that had the floods – in other words, if the disaster were to be laid at one person’s feet, it would be his.

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