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 climate change 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 were “caused” by the climate crisis. That’s not true.

Climate change is indeed increasing the intensity and number of storms such as the one last week. But that doesn’t mean people had to die. What happened last week was exactly as though a hurricane hit New York and the building regulations only stipulated an ability to withstand 30 mile-per-hour winds, and so the skyscrapers collapsed in the 100-mph winds. The deaths would have been easily preventable, and indeed that is the case because skyscrapers don’t get blown over by hurricanes.

The 2021 floods explained – in a book from 1956

The situation in Germany is identical, only the problem wasn’t building codes but a number of other factors that people such as ecologists and proponents of government services – as opposed to every-man-for-himself individualism – have been warning about for decades. The factors aren’t even that complicated. The science on all this is actually a lot simpler than climate change. If we’d followed the warnings a lot of the people would still be alive.

All impacts from natural disasters arise from two things: the intensity of the cause, which in this case was climate change, and vulnerability to harm, which was comprised of the following elements.

  • 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 pavment. 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 concentrate the water into a small area and make it flow faster. 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 industrialized country. There was a test of the system last year, and it simply 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 we know this because it killed lots of people.
  • Cultural factors: I don’t know much about this one but it’s no less real. Aside from the aforementioned political issues there are probably cultural and social reasons for thinking that emergency warning systems aren’t important. You’d have to ask an expert. Also of course there are the people who won’t flee a danger zone even when adequately warned. My educated guess is that this caused very many of the deaths. You can’t do much about these people. You would think the ones who get rescued after staying put should be sent a bill, provided they were physically able to get out of harm’s way.  It’s only fair for the taxpayers.

All the factors are not unique to Germany. Most countries have them, although the federalism seems especially pronounced here.

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