What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Climate models predicted extreme weather fluctuations. Can the damage be reversed?

In western Germany this week, whole cities seem to be underwater after days of heavy rainfall filled rivers to capacity and quickly turned into flash flooding. As parts of Europe dig out of this latest weather disaster, the European Union this week revealed an ambitious climate change plan. William Brangham discusses the plan and its impact with NASA's senior climate advisor Gavin Schmidt.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Returning now to the catastrophic flooding in Germany and Belgium.

    In a moment, William Brangham will talk with a climate scientist about this and other extreme weather events.

    But, first, he has an update on the latest.

  • William Brangham:

    In Western Germany this week, whole cities seem to be underwater. Days of heavy rainfall filled rivers to capacity and quickly turned into flash flooding, water moving with such force it swept cars away and undermined the foundations of houses.

  • Heinz-Peter Heck (through translator):

    I'm 58 now. I have never experienced anything like this in my entire life.

  • William Brangham:

    In the German town of Erftstadt, several people died when floodwaters caused the land beneath their homes to collapse. Search-and-rescue crews are on a desperate hunt for the missing.

  • Daniel Schwarz (through translator):

    There is little sleep at the moment, but the emergency workers feel obligated to help because they know how desperate some people are for help.

  • William Brangham:

    Entire communities have been left in ruins. As floodwaters started to recede today, the full extent of the destruction was revealed.

    On her visit to Washington, D.C., yesterday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the flooding a catastrophe.

  • Angela Merkel, German Chancellor (through translator):

    These are terrible days for the people in the flooded areas. My thoughts are with you, and you can trust that all forces of our government will do everything to save lives, alleviate danger, and relieve distress.

  • William Brangham:

    As parts of Europe dig out from this latest weather disaster, the European Union this week revealed an ambitious climate change plan, one that could hopefully, in time, lessen these types of disasters.

    The E.U. is proposing a slew of initiatives, including a tax on jet fuel, and completely phasing out new gas and diesel cars by 2035. Policy-makers say the whole plan could cut Europe's greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent.

  • President Ursula Von Der Leyen, European Commission:

    Change on this scale is never easy, even when it's necessary. And for that reason, there are some who will say that we should go slower, we should go lower, we should do less.

    But when it comes to climate change, doing less or doing nothing literally means changing everything.

  • William Brangham:

    Scientists have linked extreme weather fluctuations, from heat waves to torrential rains, to climate change, and these extremes are not confined to Europe.

    Last month, ground temperatures in the Arctic Circle reached over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Much of the Western United States is suffering through a severe drought, which has provided ready tinder for the wildfires that have broken out especially early this year.

    And for the first time in recorded history, deforestation and fires in the Amazon, coupled with warmer temperatures, are causing parts of the rain forest to now spit out more carbon dioxide than it absorbs. Scientists fear this reversal could be a tipping point, where one of the Earth's best ways of storing massive amounts of carbon is now becoming a carbon emitter.

    And joining me now is Gavin Schmidt. He's a climatologist and serves as NASA's senior climate adviser.

    Gavin Schmidt, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    We're seeing this devastation and the flooding in Europe and also here in the U.S. The West is baking with this drought and these wildfires. These are the things that climate models have always predicted would happen, right, more and more of these extreme fluctuations.

    Director Gavin Schmidt, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies: So, climate models have been predicting that the globe as a whole would get warmer and, along with that, that we would be seeing more heat waves and we'd be seeing more intense precipitation and an exacerbation of drought signals, particularly in places like the Southwest or in the Mediterranean region, where you're seeing a lot more evaporative demand taking the water out of the soil, making the droughts that are caused by a lack of rainfall more serious for the people on the ground.

  • William Brangham:

    Can you explain how the mechanism actually works here? For people who might look and think, how is it that climate change floods Western Europe and parches Western America?

  • Gavin Schmidt:


    So there's still a lot of normal variability in the system. There's still a lot of chaos in the system. But what's happening is that, as the planet warms, there's more water vapor in the atmosphere as a whole, so that, when it does rain, it's raining more intensely.

    And so that's partly what we're seeing in Germany. So you have a storm front that's going through, and then the rainfall itself is more intense. And that's led to significant increases in flooding in Germany.

    In places that a dryer or that are having a rainfall anomaly, like in the American Southwest, the warming is drawing more moisture out of the soil. And so that's intensifying the drought. And that's leading to the greater propensity for wildfires, smoke conditions, and bad health outcomes because of that.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, it seems like we are — we have caught ourselves in this sort of reinforcing loop. Carbon goes into the atmosphere, the planet warms, the surface of the Earth starts to change, which then can emit more carbon.

    And this process keeps feeding on itself.

  • Gavin Schmidt:

    Yes, there's undoubtedly what are called positive, amplifying features of the climate, that once we start changing things, that the system reacts, and then it makes it a bigger change than it would have been otherwise.

    We know that that's happening in the Arctic, where the ice is melting. And that's bringing in more solar radiation, which is warming even further. We know that that's happening in places like the permafrost regions or in the Amazon, where we're changing the climate, and that's changing the carbon fluxes coming out of the system.

  • William Brangham:

    I touched on this study that has just come out about the Amazon seeming in certain parts to be emitting now more carbon than it can absorb.

    Do you share the concern that the authors of this study seem to indicate, that this could be one of these major tipping points?

  • Gavin Schmidt:

    So, I don't see this so much as a tipping point. It is part of those positive, amplifying features of the system.

    But, if they — if some parts of the Amazon go from being a small carbon sink to being a small carbon source, that impacts the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere, but it isn't the difference between us being fine and the whole thing running away to Venus or something. That isn't going to happen.

    I mean, there are thresholds in the Amazon. As the Amazon dries, we anticipate that it might kind of lose its ability to stay as rain forest and kind of more — become more savanna-like. That would be a real tipping point in that region's ecosystems.

  • William Brangham:

    We touched on the E.U.'s proposals. And we have certainly seen the Biden administration has put forward its climate proposals here as well.

    I know you're not a policy analyst. I know you're not an economist. Both of those plans have been described as ambitious and bold and all of those things. And yet people on — some on the other side would argue they are still nowhere near enough to address the magnitude of the crisis that we are facing.

    Where do you come down on that spectrum?

  • Gavin Schmidt:

    There's a lot of effort that needs to be done in order to make policies that are commensurate with the size of this problem.

    I mean, to get to a point where we have reduced emissions by 60 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent is going to take an enormous amount of work.

    And, as the Chinese saying goes, a journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step. And I think that these plans from the European Union and from the Biden administration and from other jurisdictions around the world, they're more than a single step, but they're not yet 1,000 miles.

    But we need to start somewhere. And we have had a — let's say, a slow take-up of practical plans to reduce emissions up until now.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Gavin Schmidt, senior climate adviser for NASA, thank you very much for being here.

  • Gavin Schmidt:

    Thank you very much.

Listen to this Segment