Floods push climate change to front of German election campaign

A man carries a pump with a wheelbarrow as he crosses a bridge in the pedestrian area of Bad Muenstereifel, western Germany, on July 16, 2021, PHOTO: AFP

BERLIN (AFP) - The climate emergency was already prominent in the campaign for September elections in Germany, but devastating floods have further shone the spotlight on what has become an urgent issue for the main candidates.

More than 100 people were killed in western Germany in what has been dubbed a "flood of death" that crashed on to houses in a violent storm overnight on Wednesday (July 14), sweeping them away, uprooting trees and leaving a trail of despair in its wake.

As the country struggles to come to terms with the tragedy, politicians have so far broadly refrained from politicising the issue.

But news magazine Der Spiegel said global warming had "returned to the election campaign and needs to stay there".

"'Who will protect us?' is now a question that will play a central role," political scientist Karl-Rudolf Korte told ZDF public television.

A Green lawmaker who had slammed the policies of rival parties just as the tragedy unfolded deleted his tweet, accused of shamelessly using the event for personal gain.

However, political leaders have increasingly pinpointed climate change as a cause of the tragedy.

Armin Laschet, the conservative running to succeed Angela Merkel in the election on Sept 26, called for "speeding up" efforts to fight climate change, underlining the link between global warming and extreme weather.

He is the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, one of the two worst-hit states along with neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate.

In a densely populated area of Germany where big cities like Duesseldorf, Cologne and Bonn are located, entire villages were devastated when the rivers broke their banks.

"The fact that people are dying in a highly industrialised country because of extreme weather conditions... simply shows that we are increasingly reaching the limits of our adaptive capacity," warned meteorologist Mojib Latif, a researcher at the Kiel Institute of Marine Sciences, in the daily Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, of Merkel's conservative Union bloc, stressed that Germany must "prepare much better" for climate change.

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So quick were some leaders to rush to the disaster zones that they drew criticism from Robert Habeck, co-leader of the Green party.

"It is now the time for rescuers and not the time for politicians who just stand in the way," he said on his Instagram account.

He acknowledged, however, that it was legitimate for local officials to get an idea of what was happening on the ground.

The Greens are behind the conservatives in the polls, burnt by a series of missteps by their candidate Annalena Baerbock, the party's other leader.

And while politicians have been cautious about challenging climate policies implemented during Merkel's 16 years in power as the tragedy remains raw, activists have spoken out.

"The catastrophic consequences of the heavy rains of the last few days are largely our own responsibility," said Holger Sticht, head of the North Rhine-Westphalia branch of the German Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation.

He pointed to construction in flood zones, and deforestation on slopes that could once have held back some of the rain.

Impossible to prevent?

For Ursula Heinen-Esser, environment minister for North Rhine-Westphalia, climate change was the main cause of the tragedy.

"The challenge is that sometimes we have to deal with extreme drought and sometimes extremely heavy rains," she told local newspaper Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger.

The soil was "barely able to absorb more water due to the drought in previous years and the rainfall in recent weeks", she said, adding that in this situation it was "practically impossible to react in the short term".

Scientists though gave a more damning assessment.

Hannah Cloke, hydrology professor at Reading University in the UK, said that "for so many people to die in floods in Europe in 2021 represents a monumental failure of the system".

"The sight of people driving or wading through deep floodwater fills me with horror, as this is about the most dangerous thing you can do in a flood," she said.

"Forecasters could see this heavy rain coming and issued alerts early in the week, and yet the warnings were not taken seriously enough and preparations were inadequate.

"These kinds of high-energy, sudden summer torrents of rain are exactly what we expect in our rapidly heating climate."

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