No, climate change didn’t “cause 180 deaths” in Europe’s floods

Can we say “we told you so” now? Ignoring ecologists’ warnings about bad land management, and cutting government services, caused those deaths at least as much as the climate crisis did.

Last week almost twice as many people died in floods in one small part of Germany and Belgium than die in the entire U.S. in a year of floods and hurricanes combined. Virtually all of the media and the informed public think those 180 deaths, and the many billions in damages, were “caused” by the climate crisis. That’s not true.

It’s true of course that intentional disregard for basic facts of environmental science caused most of the deaths, but climate is only one part of this. The rest of the disaster was for the most part predictable under fairly basic principles of hydrology and landscape ecology that anyone can learn in mid-level college classes. There’s also no question that much of the responsbility lies  in the systematic failure of government on a level that is obscene for a modern advanced country and normally only seen in the most failed of nations.

Experts calculated that climate change increased the intensity of the storm by between 3 and 20 percent over what is normal for a once-in-400-years storm, and increased the likelihood of such an event by 1.2 to 9 times. There’s a lot of uncertainty in these numbers because the data and statistical tools needed to make more accurate connections simply don’t exist.

But what it adds up to is, the climate crisis made things worse, and so did willful refusal to undertake the kind of sound land-use planning that is needed to protect the safety of people and the health of our land, water, soil, flora and fauna, and would be necessary even if there had never been any climate change. It’s planning that makes use of the earth’s natural flood defenses, and it’s been known about for decades. A book about landscape from 1956 summarized the situation:

The 2021 floods explained – in a book from 1956

Natural flood protection – known among specialists as nature-based solutions or green infrastructure – only works if it’s planned and coordinated across landscapes and regions. There’s only one way to do that and it’s called government. You could have a king or dictator safeguarding natural flood protection, or you could have democratically elected represenatitves do it, but what doesn’t work for landscape planning is every-man-for-himself individualism and “small government”. Their very purpose is to deter just that sort of coordination among individuals and communities. Leaving things like flood planning and emergency preparedness up to “the market” and “personal choice” are exactly what you’d do if you wanted to make sure of having disasters like the one last week.

All impacts from natural disasters arise from two things. One is the intensity of the cause, which in this case was exacerbated by climate change. I won’t discuss this further here because there’s plenty of information on it elswhere. The second factor 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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