New climate report: Europe is warming the fastest of all continents – and is dangerously ill-prepared

On Monday, the European Environment Agency published its first report on climate risk assessment (EUCRA, European Climate Risk Assessment).

New climate report: Europe is warming the fastest of all continents – and is dangerously ill-prepared

On Monday, the European Environment Agency published its first report on climate risk assessment (EUCRA, European Climate Risk Assessment). The authors show that extreme heat, drought, forest fires and floods in Europe "are getting worse even under the most optimistic global warming scenarios and are affecting living conditions across the continent."

The report is based on the IPCC reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as well as data from the European Copernicus satellite program and the European Commission's Joint Research Center.

After a global record year in 2023, the warmest in more than 100,000 years, the report now goes one step further regionally: Europe is “the fastest warming continent,” it says. Since the 1980s, the continent's warming has been about twice as fast as global warming.

"Our new analysis shows that Europe faces urgent climate risks that are evolving faster than our societal preparedness," said European Environment Agency Executive Director Leena Ylä-Mononen. "To ensure the resilience of our societies, European and national political leaders must act now." This means: reducing emissions quickly and reducing harmful consequences through clever adaptation.

However, EU policy is not keeping pace with the growing risks - which could worsen as the planet's warming accelerates: "We have now entered a phase in which the climate system is changing with much more dynamism than before." says Frank Böttcher, chairman of the German Meteorological Society and organizer of the annual extreme weather congress for many years. “The 1.5 degree limit in the Paris Agreement is expected to be exceeded in a few years,” said Böttcher. "The first third of this warming took place in around 80 years, the second third in around 23 years; for the last third we expect a period of only twelve years. Against this background, we must prepare for very significant changes to the climate system in the next few decades ."

The current EUCRA report identifies 36 main climate risks for Europe. Seas and coastal systems are classified as particularly at risk because they not only suffer from the effects of climate change such as marine heat waves, but are also particularly under pressure from pollution or fishing.

Regarding risks to nutrition, it is said that heat and droughts, which threaten agricultural yields, are "already at a critically high level" in southern Europe, but countries in Central Europe are now also at risk. More frequent and extreme weather events in Europe are also a problem for critical infrastructure such as roads, water pipes or power plants, which can no longer access sufficient cooling water in droughts.

But the consequences of climate change are not a fate that people simply have to accept. Smart adaptation strategies in the present promise protection for the future. But here too, according to the climate risk report, there is a problem. Society's "preparedness", translated somewhat clumsily as "emergency preparedness" for climate extremes, is still too low. This is evident - also in Germany - in a topic that the EU report has just identified as "the largest and most urgent climate risk to human health": heat.

Even if heat waves hit people less suddenly and dramatically than, for example, a flood disaster in the Ahr Valley, they cost significantly more lives in this country: Heat not only endangers the elderly and chronically ill, but also infants and small children, people in poorly insulated apartments, heated cities or with jobs , where a lot of work is done outdoors. In the summer of 2023, around 3,200 people died in Germany due to heat, 2,700 of whom were 75 years old or older. In the summer of 2022 there were 4,500 heat-related deaths, and in 2018 there were even 8,700.

The number of appeals for heat protection that have gone unheard shows how great the balancing act has become between climate impacts and political action: Heat represents “the greatest climate change-related health risk for people in Germany,” warned the Federal Medical Association, the German Nursing Council and the German Alliance for Climate Change and Health last summer a joint declaration. A few weeks later, Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach presented the first German heat protection plan.

But that doesn't mean that seniors or sick people actually get help if the thermometer shows significantly more than 30 degrees in summer. Germany is lagging behind when it comes to heat protection. And literally mercilessly, towards the people whose lives need to be saved. Many smaller cities and municipalities still do not have heat action plans. A comparison with our neighbors in France shows how it can work: There, the National Heat Action Plan stipulates that every municipality must register particularly "vulnerable" people such as the elderly or sick with contact details. During periods of extreme heat, they receive a personal call and are reminded, for example, to drink enough water. In some cases, state employees or volunteers even pick up the frail people and accompany them to air-conditioned rooms where they can recover. At least France has managed to reduce the number of heat deaths on average over the years.

In Germany it still seems miles away from that. The image that comes to mind here is of seniors sweating alone in their attic apartment in the middle of summer. The German health system actually lacks everything to protect human lives during a heat wave: According to a report from 2023, there is neither a binding alarm system, the identification of risk groups is making little progress, there is a lack of heat control points and also sufficiently cooled rooms in which people could escape. In addition, health care staff are not adequately trained in the risks associated with heat. And the heat protection plan presented by Karl Lauterbach in 2023 is neither binding for federal states nor for municipalities because in federally organized Germany the federal government's right to intervene is once again missing.

It seems tragic that the EUCRA climate risk report that has now been presented appears around 20 years after the record summer of 2003. At that time, heat waves in Europe killed an estimated 35,000 to 50,000 people, including thousands in Germany. Politicians were alarmed and promised to act. But although heat protection programs have now been launched in many EU countries, there are said to have been 60,000 to 70,000 heat deaths in the record summer of 2022.