Combating Climate Change Germany Prepares for Weather Extremes

Heat waves, flooding, millions of euros in property damage and many deaths: A new study warns that the shifting global climate will bring massive change to Germany in the next few decades. But the government has a plan.


Armed with a new piece in the puzzle of the earth's global climate, scientists have become even more unequivocal: Global warming is really happening, and its consequences will be devastating for Germany. The Federal Environmental Agency (Umweltbundesamt, or UBA) presented a new study this week that shows alarming rises in temperature across Germany, resulting in overheated cities during the summer, which will be drenched now and then by an increasing number of torrential downpours.

According to the new data, annual average temperatures in Germany could go up by 1.5 to 3.7 degrees Celsius by 2100, as compared to the climate conditions which existed between 1961 and 1990. The most likely scenario, say the scientists involved, is a jump of between two and three degrees -- most noticeable during the winter.

The results could be dramatic: Precipitation could decline as much as 30 percent with the German northeast and southwest being particularly affected.

At the same time, climate extremes may become more common. One potential consequence is that cities will become both hot and dry during the summer, with near-tropical nighttime temperatures of 20 degrees Celsius or more -- punctuated by heavy and sometimes flooding rainfall.

"Adapt today to avoid getting run over tomorrow"

Scientists like to emphasize that they can't give precise prognoses on climate change, and miscalculations do creep in from time to time -- just recently, for example, the "Remo" model by the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg both over- and underestimated a set of climate prognoses for the German government. But experts agree that the consequences of global warming, overall, have become unavoidable.

"We have to adapt today to avoid getting run over tomorrow by the economic and social consequences," said German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel at a Federal Environmental Agency workshop. A national coordination center called "KomPass" is currently in the works with the goal of collecting data on climate change in one central location. The center would then work out counter-measures ranging from flood protection to contingency plans for severe drought.

"The idea is to avoid the uncontrollable and to control the unavoidable," said Hans-Joachim Schnellnhuber, head of the Potsdam Institute for the Study of Climate Change (PIK), at the presentation of the new calculation model. He estimates that it should be the goal of Germany and the EU to limit the temperature rise to two degrees at the most, since the consequences would otherwise become uncontrollable.

To attain this goal, Gabriel says that greenhouse gas emissions in Germany will have to be cut by roughly 40 percent before 2020, relative to 1990 levels. By 2050, they would have to be 60 to 80 percent lower. The experts at the Federal Environmental Agency (UBA) have been demanding such a cut for years, says UBA's head, Andreas Troge. "But given the implications for the economy, this has not been met everywhere with ecstatic support," he says.

The cost of climate change

By now one thing has become crystal-clear: The results of global warming are going to cost us dearly. In the past 10 years alone, extreme weather events have caused damages in Germany of roughly €16.5 billion, according to Troge. Global economic damage as a result of such "acts of God" could amount to $2 trillion by 2050, according to an estimate by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), assuming a one degree rise in temperature. The German portion of that total could be about $137 billion.

Schnellnhuber hopes that a discussion of the potential costs will foster more climate awareness. He and Troge point to estimates predicting that an ambitious climate-protection program would cost no more than 1 percent of the world's economic output. Fixing the damage that would incur without such a program, on the other hand, might cost 10 times as much.

Experts already agree that heat waves, heavy rainfall and rising sea levels will present the world with drastic changes, particularly in major cities. "Climate change poses an immense challenge that the architects of the world have not yet grasped," Schnellnhuber said. "We are going to have to reinvent urbanity."

Gabriel has announced that the German government plans to make climate change a central focus of the German EU and G8 presidencies next year. The minister lamented a "disregard for the future," and also observed somewhat self-critically that politicians tend not to think beyond one legislative period. "But in climate politics, the braking distance is long," he said.

Assuming the German "KomPass" project works and manages to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions as planned, there remains another significant detail: Countries like China and India, with their huge populations, are just starting to develop the economic engines that have led to environmental misery in the West. If these states refuse to play along with international climate politics, then German initiatives will have a negligible impact on the global problem.

The question of just how far these emerging industrial powers will participate leaves most climatologists perplexed. "That would have to work above all through technology transfers" from the First World to the Third, says a researcher at PIK. "We've demonstrated for long enough that one can drive along the highway at 200 kilometers per hour. Now we should show them that it is possible to live in zero-energy houses."


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