In Brief

Germany floods: what led to this ‘once-in-a-century’ disaster?

Nearly 200 people died in Germany and Belgium; hundreds are still unaccounted for

Early last week, a low-pressure system began forming over the area where Germany meets Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, said The Economist. Puffed up by heat –in the Netherlands, it had been the hottest June since 1901– it sucked in moisture from all across central Europe. “Then it sat there for days, disgorging colossal quantities of rain.”

Some regions got over 90mm of precipitation last Tuesday – much more than the average amount for a month – and a further 70mm or more the next day. “Soon entire towns were under water.”

Across Germany’s northwestern states, houses, bridges and cars were swept away. Villages were destroyed. The press called it a Jahrhundertflut, a once-in-a-century flood: the worst in postwar history. Nearly 200 people died in Germany and Belgium; hundreds are still unaccounted for. Even the Netherlands, with its famous system of dykes and canals, suffered heavy damage. On a visit to Rhineland-Palatinate state, Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “The German language has no words, I think, for the devastation.”

German politicians were quick to blame the flooding on global warming. While experts say that climate change is never the direct cause of a flood, “it affects the likelihood and frequency of them occurring, and their intensity”, said Tom Parfitt in The Times.

“More and more cases of extreme weather” are predicted as the global temperature rises. Looking around the world – at the floods in Germany, the heatwaves in the US, the wildfires tearing through Siberia’s forests – it is hard not to conclude that we are at the start of a climate emergency.

New “rapid attribution studies” allow the role of climate change in such events to be quickly assessed. One such study found that last month’s fatal heatwave in the Pacific Northwest of the US and Canada would have been “virtually impossible without human-caused climate change”.

This is an election year in Germany, and the campaign is likely to be shaped by the worst natural disaster in its recent history, said Der Spiegel. Harsh though it may sound, the floods probably “play to the Greens’ advantage”: they are already second in the polls, despite a difficult campaign.

The floods also pose problems for Armin Laschet, the candidate for Merkel’s CDU. As governor of the badly-affected North Rhine-Westphalia state, he is in the firing line. He was criticised for seeming to laugh during a visit; he also brushed off questions about his climate policies, saying: “You don’t change your policies just because of a day like this.” Those words may come back to haunt him. “In such moments of need, people often take a closer look at the people in power than they normally would.”

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