The Irish Times view on a summer of extreme weather: effects of climate change hit the rich world

There is nothing to suggest Ireland is better prepared for the kind of extreme weather event that struck at the heart of Germany

Destroyed houses after the flooding of the Ahr River, in Mayschoss in the district of Ahrweiler, Germany, on Thursday. Large parts of Western Germany were hit by heavy, continuous rain in the night to July 15th, resulting in local flash floods that destroyed buildings and swept away cars. Photograph: Friedemann Vogel/ EPA

Destroyed houses after the flooding of the Ahr River, in Mayschoss in the district of Ahrweiler, Germany, on Thursday. Large parts of Western Germany were hit by heavy, continuous rain in the night to July 15th, resulting in local flash floods that destroyed buildings and swept away cars. Photograph: Friedemann Vogel/ EPA

 

The scale and intensity of the recent floods in Germany have shocked climate scientists. An increase in extreme weather events has been predicted for a long time, but patterns suggest the cascading effects of climate change are accelerating.

Parts of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia were inundated with 148 litres of rain per square metre within 48 hours in an area which usually sees about 80 litres in the whole of July. Summer 2021 has also been marked by heat extremes and wildfires across the Northern hemisphere. The deadly heatwave in the US and Canada, where temperatures almost hit 50 degrees two weeks ago, provided a further indication that human-caused climate disruption is making extreme weather worse.

Heatwaves have stretched from North Africa to Siberia. Nearer to home, Northern Ireland experienced its hottest day since records began, the UK Met Office issued its first extreme heating warning, while Met Éireann released a rare “orange warning”, confirming tropical temperatures at night. Those record-shattering temperatures in North America were virtually impossible without climate change, according to scientists with World Weather Attribution. Global warming caused by human activity made it at least 150 times more likely to happen. Moreover, they warned the climate system may have crossed a threshold where a small amount of warming was causing a faster rise in extreme temperatures. They are likely to reach a similar conclusion on its role in exacerbating downpours in Germany.

Catastrophic floods are a glimpse into the future for the region, as climate change fuels more intense, slower-moving storm systems that can hold vast amounts of precipitation, a separate study found this week. This is a salutary warning to wealthy countries who believe they are likely to escape the worst effects of an overheating planet. It means that, in tandem with cutting emissions and eliminating fossil fuels, measures to support adaptation and to build resilience are essential.

Germany was ill-prepared for such destruction. Ireland is at risk from flooding and storm surges due to proximity to the Atlantic, where cities located at the mouth of estuaries are especially vulnerable. There is nothing to suggest we are better prepared for the kind of extreme weather event that struck at the heart of Germany.

All this is likely to have long-lasting implications on geopolitics, though it has a good side in potentially assisting the EU in its push for carbon neutrality by 2050. Failure to respond adequately to more ferocious and more frequent weather events, however, will increasingly influence election outcomes and even bring down governments. If that is the price to pay to ensure more effective action in urgently addressing the unfolding climate crisis, so be it.

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