A Hot, Hot, Hot Europe

It seems patently unfair that Europeans are probably doing more than any people on Earth to reduce global warming emissions, and yet Europe is in the vanguard of feeling the heat. A report released by the European Environment Agency (EEA) August 18 said that the continent is warming more rapidly than the rest of the world, with the likely results heat waves (like the scorcher in France that killed 15,000 people last summer), floods and the loss of three quarters of the Swiss Alps’ glaciers by 2050.

The report even predicted that Europe could lose its cold winters entirely by 2080. “This report pulls together a wealth of evidence that climate change is already happening and having widespread impacts, many of them with substantial economic costs, on people and ecosystems in Europe,” said EEA Executive Director Jacqueline McGlade.

The temperature is already climbing (particularly in the heat-prone Mediterranean), with climate-related damage doubling in the 1990s compared to the 1980s, and costing a record $11 billion a year. Agriculture will be affected, and plants will disappear. The report predicts hot summers, droughts and an endless round of severe storms, hail and other normally rare occurrences. In 2001, floods in 11 countries killed 80 people, while last summer’s heat felled 20,000.

The EEA study says that over the last 100 years, temperatures in Europe have risen by an average of 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit. They could climb an additional 3.6 to 11.3 degrees before 2100 because of global warming emissions. (The predictions for the rest of the globe are less threatening: a rise of 2.52 to 10.4 degrees this century.) Meanwhile, seas are also rising rapidly in Europe, with levels climbing at a rate two to four times more than in the 20th century, the report said.

Such a rise is obviously threatening to low-lying countries such as Holland. As Colin Woodard reported in our book Feeling the Heat, “With a quarter of its territory below sea level—and much of the rest threatened by coastal or river flooding—the Netherlands takes climate change very seriously. While many other countries have ignored scientific predictions that global warming will bring rising seas and changing rainfall patterns, the Dutch have been preparing themselves for the worst. Dutch engineers have raised the height of the Pettener Sea Wall several times since 1976, doubling its height in an effort to stay ahead of storms, erosion, or rising seas.

“Nationwide, the Netherlands plans to spend an extra $10 to $25 billion over the next century to upgrade dikes, pumping stations and sea defenses. Dutch companies are even preparing to make big money helping other nations respond to what most here see as the inevitable consequences of pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.”

Europe is suffering even as it’s one of the few bright points in the Kyoto picture. Though the treaty remains unratified (thanks to Bush administration opposition), many countries in Europe are doing their level best to implement its provisions. Germany, Sweden and Great Britain are on track to meet their goals under the 1997 treaty. (There are a variety of reasons for this, including England’s switch from coal to natural gas power, a move motivated in part by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s hatred of left-wing coal unions.)

But even Europe is slipping away from its commitments. As the EEA has reported, the European Union has little chance of meeting its goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by eight percent from their 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. According to EEA, 10 of the 15 member states are heading towards overshooting their emission targets, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. European emissions actually increased one percent overall between 2000 and 2001, for the second year running.

So maybe it’s not so unfair, after all. But compared to the U.S., the Europeans are climate saints. All of us in the industrial world owe an apology to Pacific and Caribbean islanders, whose minuscule per-capita emissions haven’t done much to slow the inexorable loss of many of their small human oases to the rising sea.