EXPLAINED: How the climate crisis is hitting Europe hard

From deadly wildfires to catastrophic floods, Europe is seeing the impact of the climate crisis with episodes of extreme weather only likely to increase in the coming years as average temperatures rise.

EXPLAINED: How the climate crisis is hitting Europe hard
Tourists watch from the roadside as dense smoke darkens the sky from reignited forest fires north of Grimaud, in the department of Var, southern France on August 18, 2021. - (Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP)

Europe endured record extreme weather in 2021, from the hottest day and the warmest summer to deadly wildfires and
flooding, the European Union’s climate monitoring service reported Friday.

While Earth’s surface was nearly 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels last year, Europe saw an average increase of more than two degrees, a threshold beyond which dangerous extreme weather events become
more likely and intense, the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) said.

The warmest summer on record featured a heatwave along the Mediterranean rim lasting weeks and the hottest day ever registered in Europe, a blistering 48.8C (120 degrees Fahrenheit) in Italy’s Sicily.

In Greece, high temperatures fuelled deadly wildfires described by the prime minister as the country’s “greatest ecological disaster in decades”.

Forests and homes across more than 8,000 square kilometres (3,000 square miles) were burned to the ground.

Front loaders work to move branches and uprooted trees near a bridge over the Ahr river in Insul, Ahrweiler district, western Germany, on July 28, 2021, weeks after heavy rain and floods caused major damage in the Ahr region. – At least 180 people died when severe floods pummelled western Germany over two days in mid-July, raising questions about whether enough was done to warn residents ahead of time. (Photo by Sascha Schuermann / AFP)

A slow-moving, low-pressure system over Germany, meanwhile, broke the record in mid-July for the most rain dumped in a single day.

The downpour was nourished by another unprecedented weather extreme, surface water temperatures over part of the Baltic Sea more than 5C above average.

Flooding in Germany and Belgium caused by the heavy rain — made far more likely by climate change, according to peer-reviewed studies — killed scores and caused billions of euros in damage.

As the climate continues to warm, flooding on this scale will become more frequent, the EU climate monitor has warned.

“2021 was a year of extremes including the hottest summer in Europe, heatwaves in the Mediterranean, flooding and wind droughts in western Europe,” C3S director Carlo Buontempo said in a statement.

“This shows that the understanding of weather and climate extremes is becoming increasingly relevant for key sectors of society.”     

A picture taken on July 15, 2021 shows damaged cars on a flooded street in the Belgian city of Verviers, after heavy rains and floods lashed western Europe, killing at least two people in Belgium. (Photo by François WALSCHAERTS / AFP)

‘Running out of time’

The annual report, in its fifth edition, also detailed weather extremes in the Arctic, which has warmed 3C above the 19th-century benchmark — nearly three times the global average.

Carbon emissions from Arctic wildfires, mostly in eastern Siberia, topped 16 million tonnes of CO2, roughly equivalent to the total annual carbon pollution of Bolivia.

Greenland’s ice sheet — which along with the West Antarctic ice sheet has become the main driver of sea level rise — shed some 400 billion tonnes in mass in 2021.

The pace at which the world’s ice sheets are disintegrating has accelerated more than three-fold in the last 30 years.

“Scientific experts like the IPCC have warned us we are running out of time to limit global warming to 1.5C,” said Mauro Facchini, head of Earth observation at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space, referring to the UN’s science advisory panel.

“This report stresses the urgent necessity to act as climate-related extreme events are already occurring.”

Member comments

  1. The global run-up in temperature prior to the Maunder Minimum before the industrial revolution, during the middle ages was greater than the current run-up. Look to sunspots, not CO2.

  2. The IPCC issues analyses and interpretations. They generally differ, with the analyses noting that there aren’t more extreme events, and those that happen aren’t more severe, and the likely increase in temp is below 2C.

    The interpretations generally seek to find something the analyses which speak of RCP 8.5, rather than the path we’re likely on, which is RCP 4.5. Then presenting the extremely unlikely RCP 8.5 projections as if they were the considered result of the analysis.

    That is, they’re lying again.

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IN PICTURES: German climate activists pull ‘oil stunt’ at Chancellery

The war in Ukraine and its economic fallout has dominated the news agenda in Germany for months. In a bid to get climate change back on centre stage protestors have had to be bold.

IN PICTURES: German climate activists pull 'oil stunt' at Chancellery

With climate change pushed down the news agenda as Germany tackles an energy crisis and the war in Ukraine, environmental activists are resorting to increasingly eye-catching stunts to get their message across.

This week, around a dozen activists sprayed a black liquid that looked like oil on the chancellery in Berlin and stood in front of the building with a banner that read: “Save oil instead of drilling.”

An 'oil spill' covers the floor next to the German Chancellery.

An ‘oil spill’ covers the floor next to the German Chancellery. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

Dressed in orange high-visibility jackets and hard hats, the protesters were members of Letzte Generation (“Last Generation”) — a radical protest group that has become the new face of environmental activism in Germany.

“The government has ignored everything else: petitions have been written, a million people have taken to the streets,” said Lina Joansen, a 24-year-old student taking part in the protest.

The activists want a promise from the government that it will not drill for oil in the North Sea.

“We know that fossil fuels can only aggravate the climate catastrophe that is already happening,” said law student Myriam Herrmann, 25.

A protestor with 'oil' on her hands stands outside the Chancellery

A protestor with ‘oil’ on her hands stands outside the Chancellery (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

Six months ago, a new coalition government was elected in Germany on a promise to make climate change one of its top priorities.

The Greens entered power for the first time in more than two decades, forming a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) under Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the liberal FDP.

Ambitious climate plans

Green party Economy Minister Robert Habeck announced an ambitious 60 billion euro ($68 billion) climate investment plan and promised that German would end coal power and generate 80 percent of electricity from renewables by 2030.

But since then, climate concerns have been overshadowed by the war in Ukraine, an acute energy crisis and record inflation.

Germany has accelerated plans to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) by sea, wants to explore new oil and gas reserves in the North Sea, and has even decided to reactivate mothballed coal-fired power plants.

The government has said it is still on target to meet its 2030 climate targets, but the protesters are not convinced.

A policeman stands guard in front of a sprayed portion of the Chancellery wall.

A policeman stands guard in front of a sprayed portion of the Chancellery wall. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

Herrmann is “incredibly disappointed”, especially with Habeck. “We don’t have time for stopgap solutions any more,” she said.

Letzte Generation was born following a hunger strike last year by activists demanding a law to ban supermarkets from destroying unsold food products.

Earlier this year, small groups of Letzte Generation protesters blocked busy roads in Berlin by sitting down and glueing their hands to the tarmac.

German police carry a protestor away from the Chancellery.

German police carry a protestor away from the Chancellery. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

More than 100 were arrested.

A few days after the oil protest, the group once again employed these tactics, with about 65 protesters blocking the Frankfurter Tor intersection in Berlin’s Friedrichshain.

‘Legitimate means’

Civil disobedience is “an established mode of protest in the German environmental movement”, sociologist Michael Neuber told AFP, recalling the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and blockades by the Extinction Rebellion in 2019.

Such protests have been overshadowed over the past two to three years by the massive student-led demonstrations of the Fridays for Future movement, but have more recently started to make a comeback.

“Civil disobedience attracts more attention than demonstrations,” said sociologist Dieter Rucht.

Fake ‘oil’ splashed around the Chancellory sent a striking message. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

“I see civil disobedience as a legitimate means of political protest, when it is peaceful,” 27-year-old Green party politician Deborah Duering told RBB radio this week, claiming to share the “anxiety” of the activists.

In February, by contrast, many voices within the Green party had criticised Letzte Generation for blocking the roads in Berlin.

For Herrmann, if politicians want the protests to stop, there is an easy solution.

“It is enough for Scholz and Habeck to declare that they no longer want to encourage oil drilling in the North Sea,” she said.