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14 September 2021updated 05 Nov 2021 8:59am

Will the summer’s extreme weather change climate policy in Europe and the US?

The droughts, wildfires, floods and hurricanes of the past months have prompted US and EU leaders to connect domestic weather events to climate change in an unprecedented way – but will they change policy?

By Dave Keating

In July, as deadly floods ravaged Germany and Belgium, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the affected regions in the north-west of her country. Expressing sadness and shock, she for the first time clearly linked domestic German weather disasters to climate change.

“We will stand up to this force of nature in the short term, but also in the medium and long term, through policy that has more regard for nature and the climate,” she said. Her would-be successor Armin Laschet agreed. “We have to make the state more climate-proof,” he said. “We have to make Germany climate neutral even faster.”

While northern Europe was deluged with record rainfall, southern Europe experienced unprecedented heat and drought, resulting in wildfires across the Mediterranean region. Italy had to deal with rain and floods in its north at the same time as drought and wildfires in its south. The US also had to deal with wildly varying extreme weather: wildfires in the west, hurricanes in the south and flooding in the east. The scenes of flooded New York City subway stations prompted President Joe Biden to warn, “the climate crisis is here”.

Cars sit abandoned on a flooded highway in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“For decades, scientists have warned that extreme weather would be more extreme and climate change was here – and we are living through it now,” the president said during a visit to affected areas in New Jersey, which was hit by floods and tornados. “We don’t have any more time.”

Merkel and Biden were not alone. Across the Western world, politicians this summer made the most explicit and alarming link yet between extreme weather events and climate change. The big question now is: will it make any difference to policy?

In the EU, the disasters came well-timed in terms of the potential to change policy. The floods hit just days after the European Commission unveiled its 'Fit for 55' proposals to revamp EU climate and energy policy to cut greenhouse emissions by 55% by 2030. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said after visiting the flooded areas that it shows the “urgency to act”.

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 Not everyone agreed. “As usual, the media and politicians are exaggerating and distorting the evidence,” opined former Obama administration official Steven Koonin in the Wall Street Journal. Flooding can have a variety of causes and its existence is not necessarily proof of climate change. However, Von der Leyen pointed out that, “we have seen extreme weather phenomena like droughts and stark rain in the past, but it is the intensity and the length of the events that [means] science tells us this is a clear indication of climate change”.

EU momentum

When the Commission proposes legislation, national governments in the EU Council usually water it down. Yet with so many of these national politicians now on record saying urgent climate action is needed to stop extreme weather events in Europe, could this time be different?

Wendel Trio, director of the NGO Climate Action Network Europe, is hopeful – but he is not holding his breath either. “It is the first time that politicians are making this connection so strongly, but there is still a bit of carefulness,” he says. “It will likely make the adoption of the 'Fit for 55' package easier, but the question is whether it will provide the right incentives to make the package [even] stronger than what the Commission is proposing.

“The problem is that, for the general public, even when connecting these events to climate change, it is still hard to connect changes in policies or behaviour to reducing its impact,” he adds.

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The other complications are geography and memory. The extreme weather events are most likely to change political thinking in the countries where they occurred – Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain – but for the most part, these countries are not the ones that need convincing. Eastern European countries like Poland, which usually block ambitious EU climate action, did not experience extreme weather this summer.

“The other element is media attention, and the question of if in two months it is going to be forgotten,” Trio notes. The EU legislative process takes many months, and extreme weather just after the proposal came out may not have been the best timing after all. The EU Council and Parliament will not be voting on these files until next year. “With the floods in Belgium and Germany there is a very long-term impact because it will take a while until the situation is restored, but I think with the wildfires the story is less long term,” Trio says.

Pascal Canfin, chair of the European Parliament’s environment committee and an ally of French President Emmanuel Macron, says continually making the connection between the extreme weather affecting EU citizens and the legislation now on the table will be key in the coming months. “This will bring additional energy and awareness, and acceptability for change,” he says. “The main argument of those who are reluctant to move is it will cost us a lot, but the cost of inaction is theoretical until it becomes real. This summer it became real. I think this will help us sell this package.”

Biden’s big bet

Because memories can be short-lived, the timing of the extreme weather may actually be more impactful on the political process across the Atlantic. Biden is trying to implement his campaign climate promises through the Build Back Better infrastructure bill now working its way through the US Congress. That has to pass by 1 October, or early November at the very latest, to avoid a government shutdown.

“This is being done via the budget reconciliation process because that doesn’t require a 'supermajority',” explains Karen Orenstein, a director at Friends of the Earth US. That means Republicans cannot kill it in the Senate using the filibuster and it can pass with a simple majority vote. “The fact that there are these extreme weather events at the exact same time the Biden administration is trying to get Congress to push through this legislation works to the benefit of those of us who care about addressing climate change,” Orenstein says.

However, even this process carries the risk of centrist Democrats, specifically West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, killing the bill in the Senate, which they are now threatening to do. In the US these are the only two people who matter for the moment. “It is hard to see how Sinema and Manchin can be as resistant given that wildfires are decimating town after town and we are having these massive hurricanes,” says Orenstein.

However, the states of these two senators did not experience such extreme weather this summer. Like in the EU, the political impacts of this summer’s weather are likely to depend on the state. States have tended to be bolder on climate action than the federal government, particularly two of the worst affected – California and New York. The big question is whether Republican states like Louisiana, which are being battered by hurricanes, will start drawing up climate legislation in response. “I do feel like people’s daily experience is going to change the narrative of how this country approaches climate change,” says Orenstein.

She cautions that, both in Europe and the US, there is still a risk of passing feel-good legislation that fails on the specifics. “There is a danger that in this legislation they will insist on being technology neutral, which allows for a continuation of fossil fuels – an idea that everything’s ok because at some point in the future we will capture and sequester all that carbon. So even if Biden’s legislation gets through, we still have to be very wary of bad things getting into it,” she says.

Gearing up for Glasgow

The other big question is how the summer’s extreme weather will affect the COP26 global UN climate summit in Glasgow, UK, starting on 31 October.

“I think there will be many speeches at COP26 referencing these impacts,” says Trio, “but I am afraid that because of the limitations on preparations because of the Covid pandemic, there may not have been enough progress in the negotiations to allow for a meaningful outcome and the weather events as such will not be able to strongly change that, even if there is increased awareness.”

The other complication is that the countries from whom action is most needed did not experience unusually extreme weather this summer. “There were forest fires in Brazil, but that is nothing new,” Trio says. “The confrontation with the impacts of climate change has been stronger in Europe and the US because it is newer to us.”

“We will have to see whether some of the countries that have not yet come forward with new 2030 targets, like China, India and Brazil, do so,” he adds.

While the extreme weather seems to have dialled up the political rhetoric around climate action in the West, it remains to be seen whether this will result in increased policy ambition. However, it is fortunate that both in the EU and the US there is a real legislative opportunity at this moment to make a difference. Lawmakers will not have another chance like it for some time.

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