Please, finally take the climate crisis seriously!
Climate disasters in North America and Northwest Europe have taken hundreds of lives. Let this be a turning point.
This article was originally published on July 17th 2021 in Dutch on Joop. Some sources were changed from Dutch sources to English ones. Some information has been slightly updated.
Over the last few weeks, countless people have been the victim of several large natural disasters in North America and Northwest Europe. These disasters have destroyed large areas, wiped countless houses off of the map, and together have taken hundreds if not over a thousand human lives.
I can’t do the pain the affected people must feel justice, and my thoughts are with them. Personally though, I feel one emotion above all: fury. I’m furious because these are the disasters that we’ve been warned about for decades, and which structurally and consciously have not been done enough against. Thanks to lacking climate policy — both in the Netherlands and globally — these disasters weren’t a matter of whether, but of when. The climate crisis is here and is making itself clearly visible with these disasters. We really can’t look away any longer.
The heat waves in North America
Let me start with the situations at hand, starting in North America. For several weeks, areas in western Canada and northwestern United States were ravaged by unbearable heat waves. We’re talking about temperatures that consistently hit 40 degrees Celsius. In Death Valley, temperatures of 54 degrees C were measured. If those readings are correct, then that’s the hottest temperature measured on Earth ever. These extreme temperatures have led to widely spread wildfires: in the Canadian province of British Columbia there are currently over 300 of them raging. Several villages have been completely destroyed. Much larger areas were completely disrupted in attempts to deal with the heat.
Even worse is the loss of human life. On July 2nd, reports spoke of 600 victims. That amount is probably even higher at this point. In British Columbia, emergency services reported that three times more people have died than usual.
The floodings in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany
Starting on July 12th, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany were struck by major floodings. The images on the news and social media almost speak for themselves. The water level in the river Meuse has never been this high. According to a spokesperson of the affected Dutch safety region, this is ‘on the edge of a doom scenario’. The Dutch city of Venlo has been evacuated because the water level of the Meuse could rise further. The dyke near the Dutch village Meerssen burst, forcing people in four nearby places to immediately flee their houses. In Belgium there are problems with drinking water and 21,000 people are without electricity. In Germany, over 100,000 people are without electricity. Countless homes have been destroyed.
Here, there isn’t just material damage either. In Germany, over 100 people have lost their lives. In Belgium, over 30 people lost their lives. At the time of writing there haven’t any deaths in the Netherlands, but thousands have been evacuated — including people who were in the hospital in critical condition.
Let me first emphasize that my thoughts are with the loved ones of everyone who lost their lives to these disasters. The pain these people must feel is indescribable. I hope that everyone that lost their home or whose home has been severely damaged gets all the support that they need, and that all who’ve lost a loved one get the time, space and help they need to give this a place. I also want to express my thanks to all military workers, emergency services, supportive aid and all other people that are helping and have helped to fight these disasters and save and support the people affected.
However, we need to acknowledge that these disasters have a clear cause: climate change. There’s no way around it. These disasters are direct consequences of the climate crisis.
The climate crisis shows its nature
According to researchers of World Weather Attribution, the chance for heat waves like the one that’s just taken place to occur in North America has increased by 150 times due to the climate crisis. Within the models based on the original climate in North America, the chance for temperatures above 50 degrees C was practically zero. And now, in one swoop we hit 54 C. These deadly temperatures and heat waves were once purely hypothetical. Now, they’ve become reality. These heat waves are unpredictable, and they will now only become longer and more persistent.
This is not limited to just North America either. Only two years ago in the Netherlands, temperatures above 40 degrees C were measured for the first time, which meant weather code orange had to be given off for the whole country. This record was no exception either: the Dutch weather website Weer.nl states that in this century, ten times(!) more heat records have been broken than cold records.
The water disaster we’re seeing in Europe now is also directly connected to the climate crisis. The Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) states: ‘It’s raining harder in Southern Limburg right now because of climate change’. Due to climate change the air is warmer and more humid, which causes rain to last longer on average and more rain to be in the sky. Because of this, the risk of extreme weather increases. According to NOS, weather experts also state that due to climate change extreme weather like this will occur more often. This is no new info by the way: climate scientists have been saying for years and years that this was coming. German politicians have even openly actknowledged it: this disaster is caused by climate change.
And again, this isn’t exclusive to Europe either. Very shortly after the disaster reached its peak in Europe, the Henan province and its capital Zhengzhou in China were also hit with massive floodings. Thus far, this flooding has taken the lives of at least 25 people.
Hundreds of people have lost their lives to thesedisasters over the past weeks. This fills me with mourning, but even more with anger. These disasters could’ve been avoided, or at least have been less severe. For decades scientists, climate experts, organisations and civilians have been shouting out that these are the risks of climate change. That disasters like these will happen more often and will be more severe in nature if the climate crisis isn’t tackled well. That effective climate policy is a necessity and should be an absolute priority. But politicians in power didn’t listen. For years now, effective climate policy has been pushed forward, ignored, pushed away and scaled down. We are now seeing the consequences. When it comes to the climate, people often say we have ‘little time left’. Well, our time is now officially up.
The missed climate targets
In 2015 in the Netherlands, in the first lawsuit filed by the environmental foundation Urgenda, the judge made a crystal clear ruling: in 2020, carbon emissions must be reduced by 25% compared to 1990. The fact alone that the State appealed the decision shows that they don’t take the crisis seriously. Regardless, in 2019 the Supreme Court reaffirmed the decision: 25% reduction of CO2 emissions was necessary. That target was not reached. In 2020, CO2 emissions were only cut by 24,5%. Keep in mind, that was in a covid year too. That was the year that planes remained on the ground, offices remained empty and cars remained in their places. The caretaker cabinet is now rapidly moving to get as many of those things as possible back up and running, which means that in 2021 and 2022 the emission reduction will probably end up much lower.
The last straw may have been the words of caretaker secretary of state Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius (VVD). Last week, she called meeting the legally mandated goals, roughly translated, ‘no dealbreaker’. She states that the long term climate targets are more important. This attitude from the caretaker cabinet has to be the pinnacle of contempt for the rule of law, the climate, the future and all people who are currently suffering the consequences of climate change and will do so in the future.
Even way before the first ruling in the Urgenda climate case in 2015, it was a well known fact that reducing CO2 emissions was necessary. If the second and third Rutte cabinets had taken the 2015 ruling seriously, the targets could’ve been met easily. But no, the targets weren’t reached and the caretaker cabinet prefers to look at ‘the long term’. When the missed targets were set, they already were long term. If the government had listened to scientists and experts sooner, then at the time those targets could’ve easily been long term.
If we then do decide to look at that long term, we see that we’re on track to not reach those either. Energy experts told NU.nl that we are ‘hitting the brakes too much’ to reach the target of 49 percent CO2-reduction in 2030. Even now there’s too much quarreling about details instead of effective policies being put forward. In other words: as long as nothing changes, we’ll end up in 2030 in the exact same situation as we are in now, with the exception that by that point the climate crisis will be many times worse. The target number of 49% is noteworthy to begin with, seeing how the EU recently bumped up the target to 55%. According to the UN Environment Programme, that’s just the bare minimum required globally to not end up above a 1,5 degrees C increase of global temperatures.
Is it any surprise that many people don’t have faith that the targets will be met? The government kept procrastinating until the targets were missed, misleading people with pretty words about the targets being met, and they are now redirecting the focus to the next targets. As long as the government doesn’t see how essential this is, they’ll probably keep repeating that jingle until the entirety of the Netherlands are flooded. The crisis is already happening. We’re far past the point of ‘looking at the long term’.
The future isn’t promising much yet
There are some positive developments here and there, but even those come with some major sidenotes. A few days ago, the European Commission presented a concrete plan to limit emissions in the EU by 55% in 2030, and make the whole EU carbon neutral in 2050. That sounds nice, but is it going to work? Within the European Parliament, there is broadly carried criticism regarding the plans, which are said to unfairly distribute the costs and put too much of the strain on citizens. Putting the plans in action is probably going to take years of negotiation, which means countries don’t have to do anything for many more years before these plans turn into law. That makes the chance these targets will be reached even slimmer.
Making climate policy fair is something the Netherlands struggle with on their own too. The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) concluded in a report, only published a few days ago, that major polluters like heavy industries are paying way less for their emission than civilians, and the agricultural and aviation sectors have to pay pretty much nothing for the damage they cause. Is it any wonder that nothing is changing there and civilians find that unfair?
In the meanwhile, we’re only seeing the damage increase. Last week it was reported that the Amazon rainforest has been damaged so much that it now emits more CO2 than it can absorb, in large parts because of purposely lit forest fires so the ground can be used for agriculture. And while the right-extremist Brazilian government is allowing this, it’s — among others — the Dutch and European agricultural practices that keep this system in place.
When are we finally going to see change?
With some of these points, I feel like I’m repeating myself. Honestly, it’s making me a little hopeless. None of these things are unknown information. Sometimes it feels like I can’t say anything about the climate crisis that hasn’t already been said. Why didn’t legislators do anything with it, and why are they still not doing anything with it?
The current political powers cannot and should not get away with talks that these kinds of disasters are unavoidable and that they can’t help it. Scientists have been warning them for exactly this for decades. People have taken to the streets en masse and are still tirelessly speaking up. We knew that these are the consequences of climate change, and that because of climate change these kinds of disasters are going to happen much more often and will be much more severe in nature. The government didn’t do anything with it, because things like the economy, the interests of multinationals and the next elections were more important.
Could these disasters finally be a wake up call? Could the need for serious climate policy finally seep through to the people in power, both in the Netherlands and in the rest of the world? I hope so, but I’m not assuming it. These two disasters are only two examples of the countless disasters and other problems that we’re already seeing in the world because of the climate crisis. Analyses vary a lot, but a recent study states that the consequences of the climate crisis could currently already be connected to the deaths of up to 5 million people each year. Let that number sink in. As long as nothing changes, that number will only continue to grow, and these kinds of disasters will only become more frequent and more severe.
At this point it almost feels redundant to say, but legislators, government, please just listen to scientists! Listen to the court and do your duty! Take this crisis seriously and treat it as a crisis! How much more visible do the consequences of the climate crisis need to become? If these disasters don’t bring radical change within at least Dutch politics, then nothing will. And people: speak up. Let your voice be heard, now more louder than ever. The only thing we ask is a livable world. A world where disasters like this become a normal reality, is not that.
The Dutch National Disaster Fund has opened up Giro 777 (Dutch bank account NL28INGB0000000777) to raise money to support those affected by the floods in the Dutch province of Limburg. Every penny helps. More information: https://nationaalrampenfonds.nl/