Somehow, sometimes you find yourself in situations where the wheels of time are moving, and realise that these are turning points. Sometimes you find yourself in a moment that will stick with you, for something you saw, for a sensation you had.
A few weeks ago, I had to set off from Brussels for some meetings in Frankfurt and Munich. As I try to fly as little as I can, a train would be the transport of choice. In the week running up to my departure, it seemed like someone turned the lights out in Brussels. Rain pounded the city, and there was no daylight to be seen. It felt much more like December than July. Then news came of flooding in Germany, in the Netherlands, in Belgium, and of course, there were no trains.
Cancelling my work meetings was not exactly an option, so I weighed my options, and decided to hop on a very early morning bus out of Brussels to Frankfurt on a Friday morning.
Dawn broke on the highway crossing the border from Belgium to Germany, and as we made our way from Aachen toward Cologne, we hit traffic, a surreal sight unfolded. Looking out of the window, on the highway in both directions, on the bridges and the overpasses, on the side roads and country paths, all I could see were fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars. With sirens flashing, it looked much more like a post-apocalyptic movie set than a Friday morning in Western Europe. Forty-five minutes later, we were away, and the autobahn resumed its ordinary flow.
These images of a congested autobahn came back to me a few weeks later, walking out into the heat of an early morning in Athens, on the way to the airport. The air conditioning was cranked up inside, and the familiar sensation of moisture and heat enveloped us walking out. On TV, every single channel showed pictures of fires burning. In the city centre, there was a heavy smell of smoke, as from a giant bonfire lit in the middle of the street. After a few breaths, you started to feel the itch of smoke in the back of your throat. “Yes, it’s really bad,” the taxi driver told us on the way to the airport. I had taken a train from Frankfurt to Munich, before flying out to Greece for a couple of weeks in the sun. It felt like the trip came full circle.
In the historical annals, if any survive the coming scorching centuries, this summer of 2021 will probably be remembered by many as the moment when the climate crisis really hit the Western world. Heatwaves have hit over and over in recent years, and so have fires, floods, and droughts. But the scale and sequence we’re seeing now, along with the increasing pitch of stark warnings from scientists, all show us we have reached a tipping point. There is a gradual shift in the political narrative, and a hard and cruel shift in the physical reality around us. We are no longer talking about climate change in the future, there is a climate crisis now. The environment is no longer something we need to preserve for future generations, it is about being able to survive these coming years.
There is a raging policy debate going on about whether we should work to limit heating to 1.5 degrees only, or whether we should ‘do our best’, and aim at around 2 degrees. It’s very easy to forget that 1.5 degrees of heating has not yet happened. This is how bad it is pre-heating. If we stay on our current track, one worst-case scenario says we could have a globe 12 degrees hotter by the end of this century (!), and it’s unclear if we would still be on it if that were to happen. For the first time in the 40 years that climate change has been an issue, there is a mainstream realisation that this is a problem that needs to be tackled now, not later.
The stark warning of the IPCC report only adds an iota of expert opinion to what many are seeing in the natural disasters around them.
The European Green Deal is the most ambitious climate action plan that has ever been tabled, and yet it has been criticised as “too little too late” by environmental groups. The question is whether repeated extreme weather events will increase policy ambitions and political demands. The leaders who answer that call early will be the ones shaping the agenda.
The European Commission has set the right goal of making Europe the first climate-neutral continent. It needs to make the timeframe and ambition match the hard science, and then lead and shape the international effort. How European governments and EU institutions engage in the COP26 climate conference in Edinburgh in November will make a difference. The EU and its member states need to go all out, and raise the international level of ambition, to set the stage for a truly realistic response to the climate crisis.