Floods in Europe that have killed more than 150 people in recent days are due to climate change, many say. “Deadly floods show the world is unprepared for extreme weather conditions” Lily the title of the first page of The New York Times. “‘No one is safe.'” Mentionned a German climate activist, “The climate crisis is unfolding in one of the richest regions in the world. The country’s interior minister agreed. “It is a consequence of climate change,” he said. mentionned.
But the reason the floods were so deadly is that European nations were not prepared for it. Last fall, the German government held a national ‘warning day’, during which sirens and text messages were supposed to alert people to danger. “It was a debacle” London time reports. “Most of the technology wasn’t working. A professor of hydrology who helped build the European flood forecasting and warning network mentionned there was a “monumental failure of the system”. It added, “We shouldn’t see this number of flood deaths in 2021.”
And it is proven that Germany failed to prevent the dams from collapsing. “I noticed that, during the last three weeks, all the dams were only 20-30 centimeters from the edge”, a resident Told a television reporter. “Why didn’t they release some of the water in a controlled manner much sooner? All this should not have happened if there had been 10 or 20% more volume available in the dams. The reporter added: “This is a criticism that I have heard over and over again today.”
It is true that flooding is affecting more people and more regions in Europe, and that global warming is likely to lead to increased precipitation. Warmer air can hold more water, which increases the likelihood that storms will produce more precipitation. “Extreme hydrological events”, Noted a study of 150 years of European flooding in the journal Nature, “are generally predicted to become more frequent and more damaging in Europe due to global warming”. Observed a scientist, “Any storm that comes along now has more moisture to work with.”
But the best available science finds no increase in precipitation or the cost of flooding in Europe “Although a consensus seems to exist regarding the trajectory of future climate changes”, Noted the Nature authors, “There is less confidence in the changes in flood losses as a result of climate change so far. Qualitative and quantitative hydrological studies for Europe have shown no general continent-wide trend in river flooding, extreme precipitation or annual maximum runoff.
Indeed, scientists find an important decline both death and flood damage in Europe over the past 150 years. The overall cost of flooding has increased, but when scientists explain greater wealth, scientists have found “a dramatic decline in financial losses” since 1870 that accelerated after 1950. What has changed is over people living in flood prone areas and more paved areas, which means less land to absorb excess water.
How can more people be affected by flooding and yet less die from it? The reason is that we are so much better at handling them. European infrastructure has improved significantly. the Nature The authors found that “areas with a high concentration of urban fabric and infrastructure are better protected than smaller urban areas, let alone rural areas. This is an intuitive conclusion, but supported by evidence of events spanning nearly 150 years.
In fact, the infrastructure had improved so much that many Germans seemed to have become complacent. “People knew that an extreme weather situation was coming and it could hit them”, mentionned a government official who worked in the flood control system. “I think a lot of people have clearly underestimated the weather warnings.” Mentionned one of the creators of the flood warning system, “They were probably like a fantasy or some kind of sci-fi movie to people.”
This reality seems to contradict the scientific consensus that people tend to overestimate rather than underestimate rare events. Note an academic, “when asked to estimate the probability of an extreme event, people tend to overestimate that probability.” For example, “people greatly overestimate the frequency of rare causes of death”.
But in other cases, people underestimate rare events. One of the most famous cases was brought to light by author Nassim Taleb. As the 2008 US financial crisis approached, many investors thought the risks of a serious collapse were low.
Why do some people overestimate certain risks while others underestimate them? Does it just depend on the person? About the risk? Is it just random?
Part of the answer comes from what psychologists call the “availability heuristic”. People tend to rate the likelihood of an event based on how easily they can remember past occurrences. Is memory easily “available” or “unavailable”?
In 2007, it was difficult for many people to remember a financial crisis like the one that was likely to occur. Likewise, it was difficult for many Germans to remember floods as severe as they had experienced and therefore ignored the risks.
“Global flood management has been a great achievement over the past 100 years,” noted Roger Pielke, Jr., a leading expert on the relationship between disasters and climate change. “But maintaining preparedness for very rare events outside of our experiences can be difficult. While the significant loss of human life that we have experienced over the past week was not uncommon in Europe as recently as the 1960s, the last period of high flooding in Western Europe dates back more than a year. century.
Psychological research suggests that political ideology probably plays a role. People who live in areas most susceptible to flooding tend to be more rural, more conservative and less alarmist. People who live in areas less susceptible to flooding tend to be more urban, liberal, and fear-mongering. “We are at the very beginning of a climate and ecological emergency”, tweeted Greta Thunberg, “and extreme weather events will only become more and more frequent”.
Thunberg may be right. Greater warming is likely to bring more rain to some parts of the world. But it’s also true that more rain is likely to become less deadly and less damaging, as has been the case for the past 150 years.
There was 92 percent decline in the number of deaths per decade from natural disasters since its peak in the 1920s. During that decade 5.4 million people died from natural disasters. In the 2010s, only 0.4 million did so. Overall, the five-year period ending in 2020 had the fewer deaths from natural disasters for any five-year period since 1900.
The decline in disaster deaths occurred during a period when the world’s population nearly quadrupled and temperatures rose more than 1 degree centigrade from pre-industrial levels. Even poor and climate-vulnerable countries like Bangladesh saw deaths decrease massively through low cost weather monitoring and warning systems and storm shelters.
Such disasters will also make climate change a ‘wicked problem’, which means that many people have better fingerprints. Local authorities have an interest in blaming the federal government for the failure of the flood warning system. Federal officials have an interest in blaming local governments for not managing dams properly. The designers and operators of the flood warning system have an interest in blaming individuals. Individuals have an interest in blaming anyone except themselves. And climate activists have an interest in blaming climate change.
“Of course, there is a lot more that can be done to reduce exposure and vulnerability,” Pielke said. “But the good news is that we know how to prepare for and mitigate the impacts of flooding. This is a lesson from every flood disaster.