It began on July 13. A stationary cutoff low, trapped between two highs, dumped more than 150mm of rain over a broad area covering Belgium, the Netherlands and north-western Germany.
The following events suggest this triggered a turning point in our understanding of the serious impacts caused by climate change.
Heavy rain continued to fall and by July 16 the enormity of the damage due to changing climatic conditions became clear.
Reuters reported that at least 44 people had died. A week later, the confirmed death toll in Germany and Belgium had reached 196. Reports say hundreds of people are still missing.
As the heavy rain continued to fall, the European Commission announced its Roadmap for the European Green Deal, a plan to reduce EU carbon emissions by 55 per cent by 2030.
European Commission President von der Leyen made a commitment for Europe to become the first carbon neutral continent by 2050.
The EU goal has since been passed into European law.
The extreme rainfall in Germany had been predicted in weather models and warnings. But due to communication breakdowns these alerts had not been distributed at local levels.
By July 18, the flood devastation was described as "terrifying" by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
By then the entire world had seen the pictures of massive subsidence at Erftstadt and videos of streets like rivers with cars floating down them. Erftstadt is just 44kms from the former German capital Bonn and on a relatively minor river, the Erft. The ground under the town literally gave way.
Interviews with nervous climate scientists and meteorologists followed. Initially, most were cautious about attributing this specific disaster to climate change, saying simply that extreme weather rain events were predicted in climate modelling.
This quickly changed.
Experts cited two specific causes:
1. Climate change has resulted in the warming of the atmosphere enabling it to carry more moisture, and consequently the capacity to deliver more extreme rain events;
2. It has also resulted in a breakdown in jet-stream organisation, leading to aerial transport of water in large volumes on novel and changing trajectories.
Erftstadt wasn't the only town to experienced catastrophic storm damage. There were also 31 fatalities in Belgium. Many towns have been effectively destroyed. The German Federal Government immediately provided E300 million emergency aid and pledged billions of euros more for reconstruction.
A sudden global acceptance of the truth
The German and Belgian floods are not the beginning of climate change-caused disasters. They are not even the first fatal flooding events attributed to climate change. But due to their scale and location — close to the heart of Western democracy and power — they had an immediate impact on media, public and policy-maker opinion. American comedian Stephen Colbert even launched a new segment on the Late Show named "Climate: Changed".
In the run up to COP 26 in Glasgow, it is clear the notion of "Climate Emergency: change is happening now" has added impetus to the already rapidly growing international pressure to increase efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation) and defensive measures against events like this (adaptation).
Europe's plan is centered on market pricing carbon measures in line with the stated preference of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. But the road to global implementation remains rocky. A Greenpeace investigation broadcast via the UK's Channel 4 News team secretly filmed an Exon Mobil Washington lobbyist claiming he has already defeated President Joe Biden's plans to introduce carbon taxes in the US Senate, even as the company is advertising publicly it supports them.
Further climate catastrophes have been coming thick and fast, and with them media reticence to attribute disasters to climate change has vanished.
Zhengzhou, "iPhone City", in Western China is home to 12 million. On July 20, its streets suddenly became rivers after 646mm of rain fell in just three days — more than its usual annual rainfall. People and cars were swept away. A 4km six-lane road tunnel was filled by flash flood waters. Underground train carriages were filled to shoulder height with passengers inside them.
On July 21 the story reached global media. Chinese state media meteorologists described it as a "once in a 1000-year event". This time the disaster was in the center of a prosperous modern city. Video reports showed hundreds of train passengers walking narrow walkways to safety while a river flowed along the train lines beside them.
As this article goes to press, the official death toll in China has risen to 56, but it will probably rise further. Chinese expat social media channels have shared apocalyptic video compilations made from social media footage. Some 800,000 have been evacuated in Henan Province alone.
Two days later, the Times of India reported that floods in Maharashtra State in India had killed 129 with the death toll rising. This is an area that regularly receives over three metres of rain annually, and like China, has infrastructure designed to cope with extreme rainfall.
NSW and NZ floods have same underlying cause
The monsoon can be thought of as a huge atmospheric river, running from East to West. It periodically sends large atmospheric rivers out like pulses. In the Northern Hemisphere these head northeast, in the Southern Hemisphere southeast. The monsoon belt has hot spots with one immediately north of Australia.
In February, two of these tropical atmospheric rivers combined over Eastern Australia leading to once in 100 years flooding from Sydney up to the New South Wales-Queensland border.
New Zealand has since experienced two major flooding events from the same source. In May, a tropical atmospheric river of moisture curled around the North Island and precision-targeted Canterbury and North Otago over three days coming from the east. While it was unusual for the event to be so long lasting, the curling arc trajectory of the plume that caused the storm is not a rare phenomena. As with all these events it is the intensity and duration of rainfall that is the critical dangerous factor.
A more recent tropical plume in July caused showed this was not a one-off. This delivered both Wellington and the West Coast once in 100-year rainfall events with associated flooding. Arguably, when once in 100-year floods become routine they are no longer once in 100-year floods. Some form of re-calibration of NZ's threat assessment may be needed.
While adaptation measures to protect against large floods are expensive, the alternative is to allow catastrophic events to happen and clean up afterwards. Disaster cost studies show for every dollar spent on climate adaptation, four can be saved from clean-up and reconstruction costs. And it is apparent now that these events can also kill and maim.
Unique stage has been set for UN summit
The combination of the Covid-19 pandemic, a post-Trump return to multilateralism and the catastrophic climate change impacts now before us has set a unique stage for a very interesting and ambitious United Nations Climate Summit (COP26).
By the time the UN summit gets underway in Glasgow between 31 October-12 November, the northern hemisphere will likley have experienced another two and half months of dangerous and unusual weather.
August is the peak month for Atlantic hurricanes and wild fires in both North America and Europe.
The West African Monsoon will hit its peak in August; this year rain is already falling significantly further north of where it normally does in the Sahara Desert.
Extremely heavy rain in the Nile Basin may lead to floods.
But the time summit takes place, the weather impacts of climate change will in all likelihood be top of mind for many participants.
With the United States having re-joined the Paris Climate Treaty the stage is set for this year's summit to focus on concrete climate action.
Two of the three major industrial and financial superpowers, the United States and European Union (and 110 other nations) have now committed to reaching climate neutrality by 2050. China has committed to doing so before 2060.
Only three major emitters have not yet ratified or joined the Paris agreement, Turkey, Iran and Iraq.
The issues on the table at this year's summit will focus on how to achieve the Paris goals.
The UN's focus is on how to encourage nation states to do so collaboratively by having global plans to finance the transition, including funding to assist vulnerable poorer nations with their adaptation needs.
In a speech delivered at the end of 2020 at Colombia University, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres set an ambitious agenda for this next climate summit:
"Human activities are at the root of our descent towards chaos. But that means human action can help solve it. Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere …
"Covid and climate have brought us to a threshold. We cannot go back to the old normal of inequality, injustice and heedless dominion over the Earth. Instead we must step towards a safer, more sustainable and equitable path."
The objective is implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement Treaty, which was adopted at COP21 in Paris in 2015, and which went into force in November 2016 with 191 member parties.
The goal is to keep the global temperature increase to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and preferably no higher than 1.5C. This is a tall order as by some measures we are already at 1.2C.
Due to the Covid pandemic, there was 6.4 per cent fall in emissions in 2020. A bounce back was projected in 2021, but the lingering pandemic may have dampened this.
Gutteres' COP26 agenda includes coordinated financial and economic re-engineering to speed the pace of disinvestment from fossil fuels and speed investment in adaptation and mitigation. Pricing carbon and removal of subsidies from fossil fuel industry are also critical objectives.
Of the big three, the European Union is setting the pace. It has passed law mandating a 55 per cent reduction of emissions by 2030. China has yet to reveal its plans and President Biden's Green New Deal plans are currently stalled in the US Senate, though there does seem to be willingness to push them through without Republican support as looks likely to be the case.
Europe's plans were announced as the German and Belgium flooding event was under way. The plan has multiple components all of which are extremely ambitious, and perhaps provide a flavour of what we can expect in coming years. They include:
1. Multiple market based mechanisms:
a) A price (tax) on carbon to disincentivise and eliminate subsidies.
b) A premium (subsidies) for de-carbonisation activities to incentivise investment and innovation.
c) A "carbon border adjustment mechanism" to price imported emissions.
2. 20 billion EUR per annum social fund to address energy poverty.
3. Air and maritime transport emissions are included within the goal.
4. Road transport emission cuts of 90 per cent by 2050, for which 16.3 million electric charging points and a hydrogen refuelling network will be built.
● Floods began March 18, 2021 in New South Wales.
● Sydney suburbs had worst flooding in 60 years.
● 18,000 evacuated — 3000 of those in Western Sydney and about 15,000 in the Mid North Coast; 1000 flood rescues.
● Persistent, heavy rainfall fell from March 16 to March 23. Areas around Sydney and Hunter were drenched with more than 400-600mm of rain. This region receives an average of about 1000-1500mm of rain a year.
● NSW and Australian Governments declared 16 natural disaster zones in areas from the central and mid-north coast, from Hunter Valley near Sydney, to Coffs Harbour. 7000 calls for assistance throughout the eastern seaboard.
● Flood warnings in the UK in January, February, June, July.
● Storm Christoph – from Jan 19. Cumbria had 123.8mm of rainfall in one day.
● Around 2000 families evacuated from homes in parts of Manchester and Merseyside in England and Wrexham, North Wales.
● Over 70 floods and landslides recorded in June.
● 15,000 homes damaged in tens of floods and landslides.
● Part of a total of a recorded 137 natural disasters in the country throughout June which also included earthquakes, forest fires and tornadoes; hydrometeorological disasters worst of natural disasters.
● Over 30 injured and 2 dead in June alone.
● In the first 21 days of the year there were a recorded 27 floods and 30 landslides and 34 people died due to the floods in this period.
Canterbury: Civil Defence orders residents of the low lying areas of Pines Beach to evacuate.
● State of emergency declared for entire region after heavy rain and flooding. Some areas have seen more than 300mm of rain since, MetService issues rain Red Warning.
● Ashburton river is 1m away from bursting its banks.
● 100s evacuated.
● Major damage to farms, roads, bridges.
East Coast: Torrential rain causes flooding closing roads and promoting evacuations in Tokomaru Bay.
Wellington: Roads blocked, carparks flooded, slips near homes.
● Parts of the Wellington region receive a once-in-decade rainfall reading; Hataitai recorded 78mm in 12 hours, Lower Hutt with 84mm in 12 hours.
Marlborough: Hundreds evacuated after severe flooding. State of emergency declared.
● Some areas record more than 300mm of rain in 48 hours to July 18.
● Officials report largest ever flood recorded in the region.
West Coast: Most houses in central Westport under water up to window-level.
● 200 homes were expected to be deemed uninhabitable in Buller District.
● Alastair Thompson is a New Zealand business journalist based in France.
• Published in the Herald's 2021 Sustainable Business report