Fingers in the Dike Germany Lacks Clear Plan for Climate Change

Germany is preparing for climate change by installing air conditioners in overheated cities and irrigation systems on dry fields. But a new federal proposal is short on details, state programs differ and there is no solid plan for preparing the country for a warming world.


Volker Mommsen is the mayor of one of the smallest communities in Germany. The island of Gröde, a flat green disk in the middle of the Wadden Sea, lies four kilometers (2.5 miles) off the coast of the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. There are only two small raised mounds on the island, artificial dwelling hills known as terps, each of them four meters above sea level. Five houses exist on the two terps. The island is inhabited by 11 people and, in the summer, 70 cows and 60 sheep.

Mommsen, with his gray beard, weathered face, bright-colored knit socks and worn brown shoes, has lived on the island for 47 years. His daughter moved to the mainland with his two grandchildren recently, but Mommsen doesn't want to leave Gröde.

The only problem is that the North Sea sloshes across the island several times a year now. When that happens, only the terps are above sea level. It doesn't bother him, says Mommsen. When he moved to Gröde with his parents in 1964, the structures had just been rebuilt after a major storm surge. "The state government offered low-interest loans so that the terps would remain inhabited," he says.

But now some in the state government in Kiel are asking themselves whether it's still a good idea for people to be living out on the island. If climatologists' predictions are correct, the earth's atmosphere will continue to heat up, and sea levels will rise significantly within a few decades. When that happens the sea will inundate Gröde and the other islands known as the Halligen.

Mommsen can identify with people like the king of Tonga and the president of the Maldives. Climate change also threatens the existence of their seats of government. But how can the North Sea be kept at bay? With new dikes and higher terps? It would cost many millions of euros and would fundamentally change the face of the islands.

Now, architects and engineers are being called in to help solve the problem. The state has just announced a contest for new ideas. "Perhaps," says Mommsen, "we'll need houses here like the ones in Holland, which float like boats during floods."

Making Changes from Flensburg to the Alps

Mommsen and the officials charged with protecting the coast aren't the only ones being forced to find ways to deal with the consequences of climate change, which will affect Germany from Flensburg in the north the Alps in the south.

Climatologists are certain that winters will get wetter and summers will be drier. Average annual temperatures could rise by 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. If that happens, summers will be unbearably hot in urban areas, the fields will be dry, and Germany will face new hazards from thunderstorms, severe weather, storm surges and flooding.

So far, municipal governments have taken steps to protect the environment, such as insulating schools, replacing incandescent light bulbs with new energy-saving bulbs and buying hybrid vehicles as official cars. But all of these efforts will hardly stop the rise of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. As a result, some are beginning to focus more heavily on another aspect of climate change: Protecting society from its unavoidable effects.

But there are still no uniform standards, binding regulations or clear plans for how to prepare the country for climate change, partly because of the lack of funding and an appreciation for the problem on the part of politicians, urban planners, preservationists and citizens.

A Federal Plan Short on Details

At least the federal government has begun to react. Last week it approved a long-awaited "Adaptation Action Plan." In addition to its efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, society must adapt to the consequences of climate change, says German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

But the 93-page document contains almost no information about steps the federal government intends to take. Many things will have to be implemented "at the local or regional level," according to the document, which was not drafted by Röttgen's climate experts but rather by the division of hydraulic engineers within the Environment Ministry. It makes recommendations such as: "In the spirit of self-preparedness, the primary responsibility for adapting to climate change ultimately lies with citizens and businesses."

Even the Environment Ministry, which Röttgen envisions serving as a "roadmap and point of contact" for making necessary changes in Germany, doesn't know what happens locally. So far, a federal database lists only 100 projects, many of which haven't even begun yet.

The Germans are approaching the problem in typically German fashion: thoroughly and federally. Most states, as well as many counties and municipalities, have already drafted their own strategies, set up commissions and task forces, and ordered expert opinions and studies.

Coordinating at the State Level

But what exactly does the term "high water" mean? What is a flood? And at what point does a threat begin? Even questions like these are answered differently in the capitals of Germany's 16 states. If a storm surge from the North Sea were to flow into the mouth of the Elbe River, it would affect three states, Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein and the city-state of Hamburg.

But each of those states uses a different method to draw conclusions about potential hazards based on measured water levels. Statisticians in state governments have been unable to solve the problem for years -- setting a poor precedent for those charged with preparing for even greater flooding.

In the middle Elbe region, a dispute involving levies even ended up in court. After the 2002 Elbe River floods, a veritable race to build the highest levies began along the river. The government in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania feared that the levies in the neighboring state of Brandenburg were so high that their own levies would be inundated in a flood. The two states have since worked out a complicated compromise.

There is also no lack of research projects that relate to climate change, with names like Klimzug, Klimafit, Klimpass, Regklam, Dynaklim, Kliff, KlimAix, JenKAS, Klima Exwost and KlimaMoro.

The German government is spending more than €80 million ($113 million) on the Klimzug project alone. As part of the effort, scientists in the northern city of Lübeck are studying the extent to which fungi are likely to affect houses with thatched roofs in the future.

In Brandenburg, scientists are looking into whether the species of trees that typically line the region's boulevards -- sycamore, ash and chestnut -- might be replaced with orange milk trees or Japanese magnolias in the future. At Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria experts are measuring the potential effects of visitors perspiring more heavily as a result of higher temperatures.

The results could soon fill a small library. But what is missing is a set of clear priorities. Even the climate experts at government ministries say there are many papers, but there is little coordination.


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