Evisit of economists proven haunts when they want to get an idea of where Europe is. The Milan or Paris stock exchanges provide a barometer of investor sentiment. The count of container ships entering Rotterdam and Marseille gives an indication of the strength of trade. Frankfurt, where the European Central Bank sets interest rates, is worth a (brief) visit. Figure breakers also travel to finance ministries in Athens or Dublin, where national budgets are drawn up – and in Brussels, where Eurocrats vote on them, before the City of London’s bond vigilantes return their own verdict. A detour to the Champs-Élysées in Paris or the Gran Vía in Madrid to see if shoppers are splurging completes the road trip.
To this list add Kaub in western Germany. In medieval times, the city on the bank of the Rhine began to earn money by charging for barges sailing between the Netherlands and Switzerland. Now a gauge provides a reference for water depth along the 1,200 km long river. Repeated heat waves and months of lackluster rain and snowfall caused the measured depth at Kaub to drop to around 50cm. That’s barely a shin’s worth and just a quarter of the usual reading at this time of year. Economists joined meteorologists in keeping a watchful eye. Already, ships carrying everything from car parts to chemicals in Europe’s main industrial valley must travel with half loads or less to avoid scratching their hulls on the river bed. A further drop in water levels – which is almost inevitable as the year progresses – would render the river unnavigable. A lesser rumble a few years ago caused the German gdp growth to decline significantly until resolved.
For months, Europe has braced for the coming winter, wondering how to keep homes warm and factories running without full deliveries of Russian gas. Summer turned out to be an unexpected challenge. Monstrous heat of the kind made more likely by climate change has sweltered the continent for weeks. The ensuing drought – less than a centimeter of rain fell on France in July, the lowest for any month in more than six decades – has compounded many of the problems Europe is already facing as a result of the war in Ukraine and the repercussions of covid-19. Even more uncomfortable than sitting in the scorching midday sun is the prospect of Europe having to adapt to a warmer world. Change is coming and Europe does not like change.
Immediate concerns are what is happening to food supplies, energy and the cost of living. European farmers are rarely shy about throwing their blame at politicians: spreading manure on highways and in front of parliaments is a pan-continental tradition. This time they score a point. Crops need to be picked before baking in the sun, not to mention meager yields. Limits to irrigation are generalized. Levels of the Po River in northern Italy are so low that salt water from the Adriatic has crept into its channel, threatening Italy’s breadbasket; an agricultural union warned that the conditions threatened 30-40% of the seasonal harvest. Swiss farmers report potential shortage of Gruyère cheese due to reduced milk production. Food prices, which are expected to fall as Ukraine begins shipping at least some of its stored grain, could instead remain high.
Europe is rich and can replace the food it cannot produce. The same may not be true for energy. The scorching heat forced France to throttle some of its nuclear power plants: water drawn from rivers to cool the reactors could not be safely returned to these already smoldering waterways without parboiling the fish. (Amid an electricity shortage, the rules were relaxed on August 8.) Norway is concerned about low reservoir levels. He warned he could cut hydropower exports to countries like Germany. The electricity shortage in Europe’s biggest economy could be solved by burning coal, if only the barges carrying this material could navigate the Rhine. Partly for this reason, energy prices remain stubbornly high.
Adapting in the short term means getting by without too much extra cost. Problems with Rhine barges, for example, can be mitigated by using trucks to transport things instead. But it turns out that this link in the supply chain has been overtaken by the post-covid recovery: there is a shortage of drivers. When it’s not raining, it’s raining.
Eins, zwei, dry
The threat of climate change to Europeans has so far been just that: a threat. Rightly, a lot of effort has gone into mitigation. Despite the strange coal-fired power plant reopened in recent months, the EU seems determined to achieve “net zero” emissions by 2050, with a steep reduction by 2030. But if adaptation was discussed in Brussels and national capitals, it was largely to help countries poor to cope with rising seas or the worst typhoons. A check could still be written, sympathy expressed for the kind of country whose economies can still be derailed by time.
However, Europe is now the one that is in a delicate situation. Many poor places grow rapidly, which is perhaps the most practical tool for adapting to any type of change. Europe is not. Wealthy peers like Japan and America have a long history of dealing with natural disasters, be it hurricanes, earthquakes or the scorching sun. European homes mostly avoid air conditioning. At worst, they have to endure local flooding, occasional forest fires, or cold Scandinavian winters. While America is a proud land of constant reinvention, Europe has a penchant for keeping things as they are. Green types oppose the dredging of rivers. Age-old customs are maintained, even when temperatures change. Champagne can only be made in the eponymous region of France, for example, never mind that its climate may soon not be as well suited as places further north.
No economic history of Europe is complete without a mention of its temperate climate, fertile soils, and waterways serving as the first cheap highways. It was the lucky continent, as these things go. Maybe not for long. A place that hasn’t typically thought about the weather will need to start doing just that.■
Read more from Charlemagne, our columnist on European politics:
Emmanuel Macron is not as soft on Russia as his detractors claim (August 3)
Germans live in a dream (July 21)
Down with the long summer school holidays (July 16)
For more coverage on climate change, sign up for The Climate Issue, our bi-monthly newsletter, or visit our climate change hub.