You’ve seen the images of destruction. You’ve heard about the people who have lost everything and are completely desperate.
Natural disasters on an extreme scale are rare in Germany, so many only know such destruction from the news in other countries. But the more the climate crisis picks up speed, the more extreme weather events increase in Germany as well — with catastrophic consequences.
It began with the cold, low-pressure area German scientists have named Bernd, which settled over Western and Central Europe and dumped enormous amounts of rain over several days. On July 14 alone, more than 150 liters of rain per square meter fell in individual cities and regions. Regions in North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate were among the hardest hit. Here, the usual average is 82 liters of rain — but for the whole month of July.
The result was massive flooding and inundation in the affected German states. But Germany's neighbors Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Austria, as well as other neighboring countries, were also affected. Flooding even occurred in England.
The massive destruction of towns and villages was concentrated in the regions around various rivers in western Germany. At least 160 people lost their lives there, and more than 180 people died across Europe. Several hundred more are still missing.
Germany’s Worst Natural Disaster in 50 Years
The floods are considered the worst natural disaster in Germany in over 50 years. The last time Germany had experienced a natural disaster of this scale was during the Great Flood of 1962 in Hamburg, when 340 people died in the floods. The Elbe floods of 2013 and 2006 and the Danube floods of 2002 and Oder floods of 1996 are also remembered in Germany as massive floods of the century. But the current events far overshadow these severe weather events.
Due to days of rain, water quickly crossed the riverbanks. Within minutes, entire towns were flooded and local people had lost their belongings. Floods and landslides destroyed houses and villages. Hundreds of thousands of people were without electricity or access to drinking water for days.
When visiting the devastated regions, Chancellor Angela Merkel was very clear: "It is frightening. I almost want to say that the German language hardly knows any words for the devastation that has been wrought."
Helmut Lussi, the mayor of Schuld in the Eifel region, summed up what it means above all for the local people in moving words to the journalists present: "This flood will leave scars for the people of Schuld. Scars that will never be forgotten. Scars that cannot be overcome." Looking at his destroyed village, he added, in tears, "Our lives have changed from one day to the next."
It is already clear that the reconstruction effort will take years. The last major flood on the Elbe cost 12 billion euros in 2013 — German government officials expect the current destruction to be much more expensive. Finance Minister Olaf Scholz has announced a national show of strength and promised at least 300 million euros in emergency aid.
The Climate Crisis Hits People at the Core
Climate researchers and meteorologists agree: The climate crisis is responsible for this catastrophe. Not only is a new record set almost every year for the warmest year since weather records began, but extreme heat also exacerbates the climate crisis.
Extreme heat and drought occurred in Germany during the summer months between 2018 and 2020. In early July, outdoor temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius were recorded in western Canada and the northwestern United States, followed by severe wildfires. Several hundred people died and nearly 1 billion marine animals perished under the climate conditions. In recent days, heavy rain also led to more than 20 deaths in Mumbai, India.
In the specific case of intense, long-lasting rain, a clear line can be drawn to increased global warming. Climate researchers have shown that a warmer atmosphere can absorb more water and release it through heavier precipitation.
Changes in high-altitude winds — the so-called jet stream — also ensure that low- and high-pressure areas linger longer over individual regions, thus causing extreme weather conditions.
In the face of this dire natural disaster and other extreme weather events, one thing cannot be denied: The climate crisis poses an existential threat to people and nature worldwide.
Merkel: "We Must Speed Up the Fight Against Climate Change"
This catastrophe has pushed climate protection back to the top of the political agenda. Besides the deep consternation of all politicians, one thing was hardly questioned: How urgent is it to take greater action on climate protection?
Merkel in particular made this clear: "Germany is a strong country, and we will stand up to this force of nature in the short term, but also in the medium and long term through a policy that takes nature and the climate into account more than we have done in recent years."
Even the three candidates for chancellor are now unable to avoid the issue. So far, the Bundestag election campaign has hardly revolved around the most pressing problems; rather, it’s focused around questions of style of the chancellor candidates or past behavior outside their political work.
At first, it looked as though such a catastrophe would hardly be able to distract from that. Armin Laschet, the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) candidate for chancellor, received the most coverage on social media because he was filmed celebrating while President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was expressing his shock at the devastation. But much more important is what the individual parties and candidates have to say about climate protection measures in the face of this catastrophe.
The Green Party's candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, called for "climate protection to be stepped up in all areas and effective climate protection measures to be taken with an immediate climate protection program." Settlements and infrastructures also need to be better protected.
Laschet agreed, also promising to better arm Germany against extreme weather events. While he made it clear that climate change must be tackled more quickly, he also issued the slogan that policy should not be changed quickly: "The goal of reducing CO2 must be a long-term one.”
Finance Minister Scholz, who is also the candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), had clear words: "Now hopefully the last person has understood that man-made climate change also reaches us."
He said that a second industrial revolution is needed to quickly become climate neutral and that the risks of climate change should not be placed on individuals.
Everyone agrees that significantly more needs to be done to address the global climate crisis. But the how and the speed are crucial. The next federal election is about exactly that: Who is #ZukunftSchaffen (“creating the future”) and wants to work for a sustainable and just world.
In November at COP 26, the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, decision-makers from all over the world will meet and discuss the next steps to protect the environment. In the coming months, it is important to send a clear signal here in Germany: We must stop climate change and do everything necessary to ensure that such disasters do not happen again or that their damage can be limited. We have it in our hands, we can use our voices.
The global climate crisis has dramatically manifested itself in Germany with the flood disaster. The extent and speed of the devastation is shocking and shows urgently that we must act now — because, currently, the world is far away from stopping global warming. Take action here and make sure that politicians act and do everything to stop the climate crisis.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in German and has been translated into English.