River overflowing its banks floods Altenahr
Point of view

Climate change adaptation: Glory in prevention!

The recent flood disaster in Germany has made it painfully clear to all of us how essential effective climate change adaptation measures are. Prevention plays a key role. Preventive measures must be construed as an ongoing responsibility for society as a whole.

An article by Jens Hasse

A quote from Christian Drosten’s NDR-Podcast in March 2020, the words “There is no glory in prevention” have been on everyone’s lips since then, and rightly so! These words are also appropriate for the dilemma in which not only our societies in Germany and Europe find themselves, but also other societies worldwide affected by climate change and extreme weather events. Preventive measures, whether to counter extreme events or to secure the future of the world as we know it today, do not appear particularly attractive. Preventing risk, climate or natural disasters is an inconvenient obligation, costs money and brings no glory.

Prevention is more important and urgent than ever

Given the torrential rainfall and flooding, forest and heath fires, the protracted heat waves and droughts and the average annual temperatures in Germany, which have been rising for years, make ongoing prevention more urgent than ever before. Including 2020, nine of the ten hottest years in Germany have been in the 21st century [National Meteorological ServiceDWD 2021]. Since the 1970s, the average temperatures in Germany have already risen by 1.8°C (1.6°C since 1881) [DWD 2020]. The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), the German Weather Service (DWD) and many other climate experts have been emphasizing for some time now – not just in the past three weeks – that the atmosphere absorbs more water as it heats up, making heavier to torrential rain more likely.

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report once again makes abundantly clear the global and regional climate change consequences we and the coming generations face if the current generation – if we (!) – do not succeed in significantly reducing carbon emissions globally. To achieve this, we in Europe and Germany must make a significant contribution. As consumers of fossil fuels and other resources, as world-leading providers of environmental protection technologies and enlightened societies, we are responsible for preserving the livelihoods of future generations. Also recently, the Federal Constitutional Court decided that the Bundestag and Federal Government must adopt a clear reduction plan by the end of 2022, in order to achieve the binding climate targets it has set itself with intergenerational equity.

Climate changes are already apparent

Slow, gradual climate changes have been evident in Germany, too, for some time now, as clearly revealed by the national climate change consequence monitoring programme and many equivalent federal state programmes. In addition, there are regular extreme weather events, whose impacts are exacerbated by unfettered surface sealing, insufficient green space in settled areas, construction on flood plains and ongoing shrinkage of forest and green spaces. Examples not only include the devastating flooding in Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland Palatinate this July; 2018 and 2019 also brought unusually hot summers and the floods and flash flooding in Münster, Braunsbach, Simbach and Goslar, to mention but a few events between 2014 and 2017. According to insurance companies, the damages caused by these extreme weather events have also been rising steadily for years. All municipalities, companies and citizens should be aware that these events can affect anyone of us! More than ever before, the time has come for broad-based preventive adaptation to the consequences of climate change.

Street with green areas to allow rain absorption
Exemplary climate adaptation measures in Antwerp
Action is required at multiple levels

Focusing on four areas, the German government, federal states and municipalities, companies and citizens must now take urgent preventive action for our climate and future, make clear decisions and implement them consistently:

  • The efforts we have commenced to save energy and mitigate climate change in the buildings and transport sector in particular must be continued, enhanced and accelerated. The urgently needed climate neutrality, which must come as early as possible, can only be achieved through comprehensive use of all energetically expedient spaces for photovoltaics and wind energy, as well as a mobility transformation. Many solutions are already available, are currently being implemented by pilot municipalities throughout Germany, and must now be adopted by every municipality. IPCC scientists and many others agree: We will only be able to adapt to negative consequences of climate change in our latitudes if we achieve at least the two-degree target!
  • We must make our cities, communities, residential and industrial areas, buildings and infrastructure more resilient and adaptable, and do so quickly. This applies to both new buildings and existing stock. Structural and design solutions to cope with torrential rainfall and extreme heat are known, yet many federal states and municipalities lack the necessary political guidelines and decisions. The following must be considered when implementing any planning process, any investment decision and any construction permit: More green space and shade in highly condensed public spaces; creating space and open areas – even in existing developments – for holding back torrential rain, for waterways, water features and bodies of water, even in the event of flooding. It is the responsibility of all municipalities in Germany to build climate-friendly buildings and incorporate thermal protection for the summer, create synergies with climate change mitigation measures, serve as role models and actively address private building owners with a clear position and attractive incentive schemes. Practical examples, advice and financial support have been available for this for several years. In future, the German government and federal states must support municipalities, companies and building owners far better and with sustained measures, to enable them to make their contribution to climate change precautions and adaptation – and not as special benefits, but as a normal part of their everyday work.
  • Municipalities must urgently reduce space use and space sealing and drive desealing of existing developments. Only in this way can they evolve in a climate-friendly manner and achieve the climate targets adopted. We are still far from achieving the 30-minus X ha target for 2030, and a circular land use management by 2050. Instead of pushing through surface- and resource-intensive residential building measures, municipalities, would-be builders and project developers must use empty sites, recycle wasteland, enhance existing developments, underused surfaces and vacant premises and pursue other space-saving concepts. Greater space efficiency can also be achieved with multi-storey developments and a mix of uses, incorporating residential, commercial, craft trades, urban production and education. Climate change prevention and space-effective planning and building means freeing up more space for water – both for flood protection near bodies of water and to hold back torrential rain in all developed areas, as well as for seepage and cooling green spaces. And that hasn’t just been the case since mid-July!
  • Prevention at state level and responsible actions by companies and citizens must complement one another to effectively counter heat, torrential rain, flooding and other extreme weather events. It will take more joint public and private commitment, as well as promotion of prevention to improve the (climate) resilience – that is, the resistance and adaptability – in cities and communities and in society as a whole. We must make quality of life, safety and health our priorities. Producing torrential rain risk maps, heat-related climate analyses and municipal heat action plans can help raise awareness, mitigate risks and improve risk management. However, understanding and accepting the limitations of technical protective and preventive measures must be learned and practised again and again as part of every individual’s new risk management approach.

With their responsibility for the community and provision of public utilities and services, all cities, communities and district administrations can and should take action as pioneers, catalysts and pacemakers for preventive, climate-friendly development with intergenerational equity. Failure to take action to mitigate climate change and adapt to climate change will inexorably lead to further damage to buildings, infrastructure, property and loss of economic livelihoods, homes and, in the worst case, of human lives. This must be countered jointly and early with intelligent prevention!

This joint task to protect the future will take composure, a willingness to change, reason and empathy on the part of the decision makers in the political, administrative, business spheres and in civil society. Many have already started and have had some success.

This is where the new Zentrum KlimaAnpassung (Climate Change Adaptation Centre) comes into play. It helps municipalities and social institutions to plan and implement measures to adapt to the consequences of climate change. This also includes finding the appropriate form of support. The Centre is operated on behalf of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, under the leadership of Difu and in cooperation with adelphi.

Are you not getting any recognition for preventive measures yet? Then contact us at the Zentrum KlimaAnpassung - we highlighted remarkable preventive projects throughout Germany!


Advance publication of the text that will be published in Difu-Magazine Berichte 3/2021.


[DWD 2021]: F. Imbery, F. Kaspar, K. Friedrich, B. Plückhahn: Klimatologischer Rückblick auf 2020: Eines der wärmsten Jahre in Deutschland und Ende des bisher wärmsten Jahrzehnts. (Climatological retrospective 2020: One of the hottest years in Germany marks the end of the hottest decade ever.)  National Meteorological Service Report (PDF) 7 January 2021.

[DWD 2020]: F. Kaspar, K. Friedrich, F. Imbery: 2019 global zweitwärmstes Jahr: Temperaturentwicklung in Deutschland im globalen Kontext (2019 the second hottest year worldwide. Temperature trends in Germany in a global context), National Meteorological Service Report (PDF) Version dated 28 January 2020.