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Extreme Weather Is Becoming More Frequent — and Expensive — in Europe

New research firms up links between climate change and extreme weather, and also tells us which countries are most at risk.

By Bob Berwyn


The Dachstein glacier in Austria has retreated by hundreds of feet in just a few decades. (Photo: Bob Berwyn)

Even as United States President Donald Trump continues to make worrisome moves on climate policy in his first week in office, the rest of the world continues to treat the issue as deadly serious. This week, the European Environment Agency released its latest report, which clearly spells out the threat of rising sea levels and more extreme weather, such as more frequent and more intense heatwaves, flooding, droughts, and storms due to climate change.

The report — updated every four years — says more flexible adaptation strategies are crucial to mitigating these effects. Climate-related extreme events in EEA member countries have accounted for more than 400 billion euros in economic losses since 1980, according to the report.

One of the important new findings in the report is that there was no global warming pause between 1998 and 2012, as had been suggested by some temperature record evaluations later shown to be flawed.

“There was talk of hiatus. Now we have three years in a row breaking temperature records, and nobody is talking about a pause, so we see more clearly the need to prepare for the impacts,” says Hans-Martin Füssel, an expert on vulnerability and adaptation at the EEA. “There is climate change, it’s occurring more rapidly than one had assumed, and there’s an increased urgency for policies to address that.”

“There is also better understanding of the connection between climate change and extreme events,” Füssel adds, referring to the expanding field of attribution studies that show how global warming is making particular extreme weather events more common. “We now have more data showing clearly that heavy precipitation events have increased in the last few decades. We have a better understanding that global warming is driving extreme events.”

The study also warns that global warming will accelerate the spread of diseases like vibriosis, a seafood-borne illness that threatens more than 10 million people in the Baltic region. Each year in the U.S., vibriosis kills about 100 people and makes 80,000 more sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Füssel says the new report identifies imminent climate-change hotspots on the continent, with more negative impacts expected in southern and southeastern Europe, including the Balkans and Mediterranean — regions that have already seen large increases in heat extremes alongside decreases in precipitation and river flows. Those developments have heightened the risk of more severe droughts, lower crop yields, biodiversity loss, and forest fires.

Coastal areas and floodplains in western parts of Europe are also seen as hotspots, as they face an increased risk of flooding from rising sea levels and a possible increase in storm surges.

Other recent studies have shown a dramatic decline in the snow season in the Swiss Alps, and the meltdown of glaciers in the Alps has also been well-documented.

The European Union is on an aggressive path to cut carbon emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050, and many of the E.U.’s member states have even more ambitious goals, including Germany, which is aiming to decarbonize completely by mid-century, and Austria, which has warmed at twice the global average and is preparing a very detailed adaptation plan.

This week, E.U. leaders also vowed to maintain the Green Climate Fund, a pool of money created by developed countries to aid developing nations as they adapt to global warming and help with the shift to renewable energy. Trump has vowed to stop U.S. payments to the fund, but E.U. officials said that, even if that happens, the rest of the world will step up.