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Europe Must Accelerate Its Climate Adaptation

The continent is warming faster than any other region—with dangerous effects for a temperate zone.

By , a fellow in the Europe program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Tourists walk across a flooded St. Mark’s Square.
Tourists walk across a flooded St. Mark’s Square.
Tourists walk across a flooded St. Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy, on Sept. 27. ANDREA PATTARO/AFP via Getty Images

The spotlight at this year’s United Nations climate change conference (or COP27) has focused on “loss and damage”—a euphemism for climate reparations—which is on the official agenda for the first time. Climate-vulnerable developing countries seek compensation from the countries that have done the most to warm the planet. There is no chance of reparations commensurate with the true cost to developing countries, which studies estimate at hundreds of billions of dollars per year. What rich countries have committed to loss and damage has mostly come from Europe: about $250 million from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and Scotland.

Europe’s contributions to loss and damage—and toward climate adaptation in the developing world—are commendable, but it must also remain focused on its own vulnerability to direct climate impacts. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report finds that Europe has warmed faster than any other region in the last three decades. Even for a temperate zone, the effects are dangerous, and the pace of change—faster than previous estimates—is particularly troubling. Given the threat of even 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, Europe must accelerate its plans to adapt to climate impacts at home.

Many European politicians seem to approach the climate crisis more as a geopolitical consideration or as a driver of migration than as a threat to life in Europe. Ahead of COP27, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted that he was attending the summit for “our children and grandchildren,” suggesting that a 42-year-old has little to worry about. But this year, with warming at about 1.1 degrees Celsius, a heat wave led to thousands of excess deaths per week in Germany, Portugal, and Spain. The IPCC projects that warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius could result in 30,000 annual deaths in Europe due to extreme heat. (In 2003, more than 20,000 people died in Europe’s then-historic summer heat wave.)

The spotlight at this year’s United Nations climate change conference (or COP27) has focused on “loss and damage”—a euphemism for climate reparations—which is on the official agenda for the first time. Climate-vulnerable developing countries seek compensation from the countries that have done the most to warm the planet. There is no chance of reparations commensurate with the true cost to developing countries, which studies estimate at hundreds of billions of dollars per year. What rich countries have committed to loss and damage has mostly come from Europe: about $250 million from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and Scotland.

Europe’s contributions to loss and damage—and toward climate adaptation in the developing world—are commendable, but it must also remain focused on its own vulnerability to direct climate impacts. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report finds that Europe has warmed faster than any other region in the last three decades. Even for a temperate zone, the effects are dangerous, and the pace of change—faster than previous estimates—is particularly troubling. Given the threat of even 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, Europe must accelerate its plans to adapt to climate impacts at home.

Many European politicians seem to approach the climate crisis more as a geopolitical consideration or as a driver of migration than as a threat to life in Europe. Ahead of COP27, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted that he was attending the summit for “our children and grandchildren,” suggesting that a 42-year-old has little to worry about. But this year, with warming at about 1.1 degrees Celsius, a heat wave led to thousands of excess deaths per week in Germany, Portugal, and Spain. The IPCC projects that warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius could result in 30,000 annual deaths in Europe due to extreme heat. (In 2003, more than 20,000 people died in Europe’s then-historic summer heat wave.)

Five or 10 years ago, it seemed plausible that the world would warm by 4 or 5 degrees Celsius by 2100 and become uninhabitable. But enough countries have since implemented or promised forceful climate policies, and renewable energy has gotten so cheap that the U.N. Environment Program has ruled out that worst-case scenario. On the other hand, it is now essentially impossible to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius: The Earth is currently on track to pass it in the early 2030s and pass 2 degrees Celsius around 2050. COP27 has emphasized adapting to unavoidable impacts because the best-case scenario has slipped away. This year’s summit signals a shift of mood—from speaking about what would change to what will change.


In Europe, it’s increasingly hard to separate the climate crisis from other crises. Amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, warm weather has reduced gas demand on the continent—and with it, pressure from citizens and industrialists to make concessions to Moscow in exchange for energy. Over the summer, droughts hampered food and electricity production in Europe, contributing to inflation and forcing governments into energy relief packages that irritated neighbors and undermined intra-European unity. And as U.S.-China competition intensifies, Europe’s reliance on Chinese supplies of metals critical to the energy transition could complicate decoupling efforts.

Analysts are right to emphasize these second- and third-order effects; some crises are impossible to address in isolation—lending credence to the idea of a polycrisis. Yet the direct impacts of climate change in Europe should not be overlooked. The latest IPCC report highlights three ways climate change will harm Europeans directly: flooding, water scarcity, and heat stress. This threat is already clear across Europe, but it will get more extreme. Rising sea levels in Venice, Italy, are flooding St. Mark’s Basilica with brackish lagoon water, endangering vital cultural heritage. Droughts in Central Europe are revealing hunger stones—medieval warnings carved into rocks that appear when rivers run dry. Some of those who died from extreme heat in Portugal this summer were older adults stuck in hospitals without air conditioning.

According to the report, coastal flood damage will increase by at least tenfold over the 21st century. At 2 degrees Celsius of warming, more than one-third of Southern Europe’s population will suffer from water scarcity. This presents a problem for power plants and factories, but European agriculture is most exposed. The combination of heat and drought will lead to “substantive agricultural production losses” for most European regions. At 3 degrees Celsius of warming, the number of deaths from heat stress will increase two to threefold compared to 1.5 degrees Celsius, with Southern Europe and urban areas suffering the most severe consequences. This will greatly expand fire-prone areas across Europe; since 2017, wildfires have scorched an area larger than Belgium.

The only good news for Europe in the latest IPCC report is that in most places, the variety of options to mitigate climate change impacts has increased. Europeans are cognizant of the danger and willing to deploy resources to reduce risks that are no longer hypothetical. Sometimes, these steps are small: More cities in Belgium are installing free water fountains to protect people from dehydration and reduce plastic pollution, for example. And sometimes, they are major programs with major budgets. In the wake of the July 2021 floods that cost Germany for climate protection measures, such as restoring wetlands, that can help absorb heavy rain.

These efforts are taking place across Europe. Athens and Barcelona, Spain, are among the cities appointing so-called heat officers to set up warning systems for heat waves and arrange air conditioned shelters. The Netherlands, which stepped up its adaptation to environmental risks after devastating floods in 1953, is upgrading its dikes in pursuit of a lofty goal: making the risk of a person dying in a flood negligible by 2050. Farmers in France, where drought has affected wine production, are trying new approaches like planting hardy sorghum instead of thirsty wheat. More countries have relied on an EU emergency mechanism for help extinguishing forest fires.

Although these are encouraging signs when it comes to EU climate and energy policy, adaptation often takes a backseat to producing clean energy and keeping fossil fuel prices low. French think tank I4CE estimated that France needs to spend an additional 2.3 billion euros in next year’s budget on adaptation—in a country that has spent nearly 90 billion euros in 2022 just to shield citizens from the high price of fossil fuels. The EU’s 2021 adaptation strategy admits that “policy tends to give greater priority to climate change mitigation” and bemoans that the bloc doesn’t track adaptation spending separately from mitigation spending.

Compared to other wealthy states, most European countries enjoy broad public consensus about their climate policies. But one problem for adaptation spending in particular is that it often doesn’t generate revenue. Private companies can make money by selling solar power, but it’s hard to turn a profit by planting mangroves to protect against floods, for example. Public financing is important, and the European governments that have moved so aggressively to manage the transition away from Russian fossil fuels in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine need to be equally assertive when it comes to adapting to imminent and unavoidable climate impacts.

It’s easy to get caught up on how climate change affects everything from Germany-Italy bond spreads to efforts to reach NATO’s defense spending targets. But as COP27 comes to a close, it’s worth it for European leaders to focus singularly on the climate crisis and its first-order effects: that global warming is already endangering their citizens.

Noah Gordon is a fellow in the Europe program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His work focuses on climate, energy, and geopolitics. Twitter: @noah_gordon_

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