Flooding in Paris: Exceptional Weather or the New Normal?
Slowly but surely, climate change will start to influence daily life. One day, you’ll realize that some misfortune has happened to you that is caused by climate change. From then on, it is no longer something distant that you read about in the newspapers and impacts other people’s lives.
Perhaps it will remind you a bit of the process of getting older. You have never denied the concept of getting older, and the associated little problems; after all, you saw it happening to others. But then unexpectedly the day arrives that you find yourself buying your first pair of reading glasses, and you are ready to face the world through different eyes. It won’t be much different with climate change.
Suppose you had planned an early summer holiday and you were in Paris right now. Would you have realized that the flooding of the Seine is not just a case of bad luck that spoils your plans to visit the Louvre?
The French President Hollande certainly seems to view it as bad luck by calling the flooding “exceptional.” Only half a year ago, the world’s representatives gathered for weeks in his capital to agree to limit climate change. It therefore somehow feels unfair that this beautiful city, that eagerly attached its name to this agreement, should now suffer under the impact of the new climate conditions that it tried so hard to avoid.
Scientists prefer to speak of the “new normal,” a situation where we will see more cases of extreme rainfall in Europe and elsewhere. It has been predicted in the IPCC reports and from other experts that a warmer atmosphere contains more water and we should therefore expect more cases of extreme downpours. In Europe there has already been some 30 percent more record breaking rainfall in the last decades compared to the years before 1980. That may still not explain one specific case of extreme weather during your holiday in Paris – and yes, I am aware that the Seine has had its high levels before we even started to change the climate – but it does make it increasingly challenging to call this specific flooding exceptional.
Politicians all over the world will from now on increasingly start to use the world “exceptional” to explain the new conditions of climate change. In the next decades, part of the new normal might actually be the daily use of the by-then inflated phrase “exceptional weather” by some national leader to explain what climate change has caused in his or her country.
And you are likely to find yourself in that situation as well. In the decades to come you may return home from your holidays and complain to friends and family:
“There was exceptional little snowfall in the Alps when we wanted to go skiing.”
“There was exceptional bleaching of the corals this years when we went scuba diving.”
“There was exceptional hot weather that kept us all inside the air conditioned hotel.”
“There was exceptional flooding in the streets of Miami on an otherwise sunny day.”
And in some ten years from now, when climate change denial is forgotten even by those who preached it on a daily basis, your social conversation might be about the moment that you realized that you were witnessing climate change for the first time. It will be the “where were you” question of the next decade. That moment that you were on holiday in that unique place that had been high on your bucket list, only to realize that something was missing.
For me, the “where were you” moment was two years ago during a holiday in the U.S. when I took a photo of the spectacular mountain range of Grand Teton national Park. While looking through the lens of my camera at this pristine picture I suddenly noticed the dying pine trees. When I checked with one of the rangers, she confirmed my suspicion that it was the pine beetle that had killed them. The hundreds of dying trees that I saw where just a handful of the many millions of pine trees that were dying in the Rocky Mountains.
In the warming climate, pine beetles are no longer under threat from many weeks of very cold temperatures, and most of them happily survived the now mild winters. The pine trees that already suffered from an invasive species of fungus were increasingly at risk from these pine beetles. A situation that is now further worsened in some regions, since the pine beetles use the longer summers to reproduce twice instead of just once a year.
Climate change was at least partly to blame as a spoiler of holiday pictures. Of course, it should have been the least of my worries when considering the global impacts, but it was a reality check. Climate change was no longer just on my desk at work. Nor was it any longer just a collection of impressive numbers and the ever darkening colors on world maps. I experienced it where and when I had expected it least, while looking through the lens of my camera.
It was that moment that getting older means no longer the gray hairs of others and that it is yourself who is not able to read without glasses. It was the moment that I knew climate change is here to stay and that it is going to get a whole lot worse than just a spoiled picture.
So if you plan to go on your holiday soon, I wish you a delightful summer with moderate temperatures, just some moderate rainfall, a light breeze and only a moderate amount of disease-free local mosquitoes. Celebrate the beauty of the planet as we used to know it.
Enjoy the old normal while it lasts.