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A weekly reckoning with our heated planet—and the fight to save it

The Rhine Is the Perfect Symbol of Our Climate Folly

The German river, subjected to a massive nineteenth-century engineering project that facilitated coal transport, now needs engineers to intervene again due to global warming.

Cargo ships travel on a river with wide, dry banks.
Ying Tang/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Cargo ships travel down the Rhine around Oberwesel, Germany, on July 31, during low water levels.

Germany is trying to save the Rhine. “Save,” in this case, means keep the river navigable for cargo ships.

As recently reported by The New York Times in a detailed feature, climate change is increasingly threatening the Rhine’s water levels. The same can be said of many other waterways across the globe, but the Rhine’s periodic low-water events in particular seem to be getting more frequent and more severe. The economic effects could be dire: “Up to 80 percent of Germany’s ship-bound cargo,” the Times’ Christopher Schuetze wrote, “[is] transported on the Rhine on [its] way to not only the south of the country, but also to parts of France, Switzerland and, over the Main-Danube Canal, Eastern Europe.” The cost of low water has been substantial: In 2018, an estimated 12 billion euros were lost; this past summer that figure came to about 8 billion euros, largely due to disrupted coal shipments.

Naturally, engineers have been dispatched to find a way to make the waterway more drought-resistant. For students of history, though, there’s a certain irony to this 180 million euro project to deepen the river at several crucial junctures: For hundreds of years before this, the primary threat presented by the Rhine was flooding. And the Rhine’s reputation as a prime commercial waterway today is itself the product of an even more massive feat of engineering than today’s climate-adaptation project. That feat, from nearly 200 years ago, also came in response to climate disaster.

As historian David Blackbourn wrote in his 2006 book, The Conquest of Nature, the river that inspired generations of German poets in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was a fundamentally unpredictable waterway; the Rhine was not a single river but rather a maze of side-arms that became main channels (and vice versa) during seasonal floods, during which the river could also just carve itself an entirely new path through the countryside. This was tricky both for humans in boats—who had to keep changing which path they took—and humans in houses: People who wished to settle on the river chose their site carefully but couldn’t always avoid catastrophe. “The first artificial cut in the river to divert water from a threatened site,” Blackbourn noted, “dated back to 1391.”

The so-called Little Ice Age made this worse. This mysterious cooling period hit Europe sometime around the beginning of the fourteenth century (depending on which interpretation of the data you favor) for reasons that scientists have attributed to volcanic eruptions, decreased solar radiation, or diseases killing off a lot of people (again, depending on which interpretation of the data you favor). What’s not disputed is its effects. Summers in the second half of the eighteenth century were extremely wet in Central Europe, and on the Rhine, Blackbourn wrote, floods “arrived around once every three years between the ‘great winter’ of 1740 and the floods of 1786, then virtually every year from 1799 to 1808.”

Unsurprisingly, this was deemed neither safe nor convenient—particularly for rapidly industrializing territories along the river that would have really loved the Rhine to serve as a liquid highway instead of a seasonal crisis. And so, in the nineteenth century, engineers and teams of laborers started systematically bypassing some of the river’s bends to straighten its path, drain its swamps, and generally make the Rhine look the way many in the so-called “modern” world thought a river should look. “This was,” Blackbourn wrote, “the largest civil engineering project that had ever been undertaken in Germany.” From the decades of disruption, the Rhine region received a major economic boost (as well as a reduction in malaria—although whether that was due to Rhine engineering or other factors is open to debate). It lost some good fishing, in addition to the gold deposits that today register to most people as merely mythical—the stuff of Wagner’s famous Rhinegold opera.

The engineering of the Rhine didn’t begin with this nineteenth-century project, and it didn’t end with it either. The most recent “major” Rhine engineering project, the Times noted, was in 1995. But much of the way the river looks today, as well as our expectations of its economic productivity, is a product of that nineteenth-century makeover.

In a sense, the effort to “save” the Rhine today is just an extension of this complex history of human intervention—something that’s mentioned specifically in Unesco’s entry on the Upper Middle Rhine Valley on why it qualifies as a World Heritage site. But today’s Rhine crisis also represents a bleak reversal of the eighteenth-century conditions that prompted the first major intervention. The coal that the reengineered Rhine helped transport, when burned, created some of the emissions that have since heated the world to its present point, spawning the conditions for today’s persistent droughts. It would be more ironic still if today’s engineers successfully drought-harden the river—much as their earlier counterparts sought to flood-harden it—only to see those coal shipments continue.

Good News

The United States and China have restarted climate talks—although, as noted in The New York Timeswriteup of the news, there’s reason to believe negotiations could continue to be bumpy.

Bad News

Somehow, this year’s U.N. climate talks (known as COP27) involve even more fossil fuel lobbyists than last year’s.

Stat of the Week

That’s the percentage of the nation that suffered a weather disaster between 2011 and 2021, according to a new report.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

This Is No Time for Apathy or Complacency

An editorial backed by more than 30 news organizations around the world, coordinated by The Guardian, called on Tuesday for developing nations to be “given enough cash to address the dangerous conditions they did little to create—especially as a global recession looms.” Rich countries, in other words, who bear most of the historical blame for climate change, should finally meet their 2020 pledge to provide $100 billion a year to finance poorer countries’ adaptation to climate change.

As a bare minimum, a windfall tax on the combined profits of the largest oil and gas companies—estimated at almost $100bn in the first three months of the year—needs to be enacted. The United Nations was right to call for the cash to be used to support the most vulnerable. But such a levy would only be the start. Poor nations also carry debts that make it impossible to recover after climate-related disasters or protect themselves from future ones. Creditors should be generous in writing off loans for those on the frontline of the climate emergency.

These measures need not wait for coordinated international action. Countries could implement them on regional or national levels. A nation’s cumulative emissions must be the basis of its responsibility to act. While private finance can help, the onus is on big historical emitters to stump up the money.

Read this editorial at The Guardian.

This article first appeared in Apocalypse Soon, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

Are Gas Stoves the New Cigarettes?

A new study suggests that gas stoves are poisoning people in more ways than even the experts knew. The question now is whether the gas industry has been aware of this for years.

A coffee pot sits on a gas burner.
Davide Bonaldo/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

We’ve long been told that gas stoves are simply better than their electric counterparts: prettier to look at and easier to control. Anyone who aspired to “elevated” cooking in their home must have one. But now we know they excel at something else: putting our lives in danger.

Last week, The New York Times reported a new study strongly suggesting that gas stoves may be poisoning people in their homes. This was not a surprise to those of us who’ve been following recent research on gas risks. For over a decade now, there’s been a steady stream of well-reported articles indicating not just that the alleged mystique of gas stoves was deliberately propagated by the fossil fuel industry but also that gas stoves, far from being the ultimate symbol of comfortable home life, are in fact associated with increased risk of adverse health outcomes, including childhood asthma. This early research focused mostly on nitrogen dioxide, or NO2, which is released by gas stoves. But recently, researchers have started to pay attention instead to benzene, a chemical frequently found in gas samples and which is recognized officially by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as a known carcinogen.

In the study reported last week, researchers sampled unburned gas from 159 California homes and found each of the samples contained chemicals recognized as hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency, including benzene. The fact that the amounts were low should not reassure people, this report made clear. “There really is no safe threshold,” because benzene accumulates in the body over time, pediatrician Philip J. Landrigan told New York Times reporter Elena Shao. And the findings also suggested, according to air pollution scientist Kelsey Bilsback, that “simply opening the windows or turning on a range hood while the stove is on” doesn’t solve the problem.

What are we to do with this indicator that gas stoves may be poisoning us? Very few people can afford to replace their stove at the drop of a hat, even if they’re in a position to do so; renters have almost no control over the appliances in their homes. I’ve started using the exhaust hood whenever cooking, in addition to parking a portable air filter in the kitchen and opening the windows when making dinner. But given that winter is coming and other research indicates that gas stoves leak even when they’re turned off, that’s not a particularly practical long-term plan. It’s clear that the health risks of gas stoves—much like their planet-warming effects—aren’t something that individuals can mitigate with good personal choices. The problem is the gas itself.

That, in turn, raises the question of what level of responsibility gas companies bear for introducing these expensive, hard-to-replace, toxic products into people’s lives. At what point, for example, do gas companies start to resemble Big Tobacco, marketing and selling a product known to harm human health?

“Once I read [the New York Times article] and thought about it,” said John Banzhaf, a George Washington University law professor famous for his work against cigarette companies and establishing nonsmokers’ rights, “I saw a lot of similarities.… Here you’ve got the so-called natural gas people pushing natural gas at a time when there’s increasing evidence—although still in its early stages, I guess—that it’s really dangerous.”

Changing attitudes, let alone proving liability in a court of law, could be very hard, Banzhaf told me by phone. “Tobacco smoke is in many ways like natural gas; it’s made up of a number of different chemical elements,” he said. “I think that people may have a real problem trying to accept the idea that small concentrations of leaking natural gas, particularly benzene, might cause health problems, the same way that people had real difficulty believing that amounts of drifting tobacco smoke could cause health problems. It is very difficult to come up with a study which would show it.”

Establishing liability for prior sales of gas ranges might be impossible, agreed Richard Daynard, a law professor at Northeastern University who has worked for decades to establish the tobacco industry’s liability for death and disease caused by its products. Until a scientific consensus emerges, companies can’t necessarily be held responsible for not warning the public about something. (There is now a lot of evidence, however, that the fossil fuel industry knew its products could be causing climate change long before the public did, and hid it—an interesting point of comparison.) But now it looks like there is an emerging consensus. “So going forward,” Daynard added by email, “I do think gas stoves might meet the criteria for product liability: an unreasonably dangerous product for which a safer alternative (electric stoves) exists. There may also now be an obligation of gas stove manufacturers to warn consumers of the risks described in the article, both on the stoves themselves and in their promotional materials.”

Banzhaf also pointed to a segment of the population for public health advocates and those concerned about gas stoves to focus on: those who may have heightened sensitivity to this air pollution, much as those with asthma could quickly be shown to be harmed by secondhand smoke. “To put a good spin on it,” he said, “the long experience we’ve now had with tobacco smoke pollution, showing that it creates a risk even for people in nonsmoking sections, might make it easier for the people who are concerned about natural gas to convince people that even the small amounts of benzene which are drifting out could be having some kind of effect.”

There are a lot of different steps that could be taken at this point, Banzhaf added. “You could have government warnings, which is what we did with smoking. They weren’t terribly effective, but you could have PSAs, as we call them.” Government policies could require the company selling the device to warn consumers, although package warnings also aren’t very effective, he added, “because by the time you’ve bought it you’re not going to send it back ’cause you saw this little note.” The “better option,” he said “is to require they do it during their advertising and promotion. This is what we do with smoking,” although it also can lead to First Amendment challenges in court. Tax incentives for replacing gas stoves with electric are another option.

“The final step of course is to ban new ones. You almost certainly can’t do that retroactively, but you can say, ‘As of a certain date, you can’t buy these things,’” he said. Some cities are now doing this, banning new gas hookups starting in a particular year. And while it can be very hard to force people to replace products, municipal governments could at least start requiring landlords to put warning signs on the gas stoves they install in their units for renters’ use.

Those signs might be cold comfort to people forced to live with the appliances. But if there’s any message from the accumulating research on the dangers of gas stoves—and we haven’t even covered the climate damages here—it’s that no one should be fooled, going forward, into thinking gas stoves are some kind of lifestyle promotion. Government action to spread this information far and wide and counter industry messaging ought to be considered the bare minimum at this point. And it’s easy.

“They might be reluctant to ban gas ranges; might be somewhat reluctant to charge a higher tax for putting one in,” Banzhaf said. “But to simply say, ‘We will prepare the sign, and we will require every landlord to come down and pick one up and put it on every range in the building’? That’s not a big burden.”

Good News

People who have cut meat consumption for climate reasons (which does happen!), but miss cheesesteaks, may be cheered to hear that Beyond Meat debuted its new plant-based steak tips this week.

Bad News

Deforestation slowed last year, but not enough, according to a new report. (Highly relevant for global deforestation going forward: the results of the Brazilian presidential runoff on Sunday.)

Stat of the Week

That’s the (minuscule) proportion of plastic waste from U.S. households that was actually recycled, according to a new Greenpeace report.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

Climate Pledges Are Falling Short, and a Chaotic Future Looks More Like Reality

It’s not an uplifting read, but it’s an essential one. The New York Times’ front-page story on Wednesday emphasizes how far behind we are on emissions reductions, only a few weeks ahead of the U.N. climate talks in Egypt. This is dire stuff, and it makes clear that while the climate policies passed this year were a good start, they’re nowhere near enough.

Just 26 of 193 countries that agreed last year to step up their climate actions have followed through with more ambitious plans. The world’s top two polluters, China and the United States, have taken some action but have not pledged more this year, and climate negotiations between the two have been frozen for months.

Without drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the report said, the planet is on track to warm by an average of 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels, by 2100.

That’s far higher than the goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) set by the landmark Paris agreement in 2015, and it crosses the threshold beyond which scientists say the likelihood of catastrophic climate impacts significantly increases.

Read Max Bearak’s article at The New York Times.

This article first appeared in Apocalypse Soon, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

Nigeria’s Floods Should Be Front-Page News

Imagine if three-quarters of U.S. states were flooded.

An aerial shot shows a raised road surrounded by floodwaters.
An aerial view shows the nearly submerged community of Imburu in Adamawa state in Nigeria on September 25.

An estimated 1.4 million people have been displaced by recent flooding in Nigeria. Wrap your mind around that number for a second. For comparison: In the United States, in 2005, an estimated 1.5 million people in Gulf states evacuated ahead of Hurricane Katrina—considered the largest climate displacement event since the Dust Bowl—but many of those were able to return home after a few days, leaving about 600,000 displaced a month later. That was a monumental disaster. Yet Nigeria’s flooding may exceed those displacement numbers—and the story has barely broken through in the U.S. media.

The floods are affecting 27 of 36 states in Nigeria. (Can you even imagine if 75 percent of U.S. states were flooded at the same time?) Over 600 people have died so far, and “for some states,” Ruth Maclean reports for The New York Times this week, “more than a month of floods is likely still to come.” U.N. officials have confirmed the role of climate change in exacerbating the floods.

Perhaps the most horrifying thing about these floods is that Nigeria isn’t even considered one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. TNR’s Kate Aronoff wrote about these countries in a piece published Wednesday. The group known as the V20 (for “Vulnerable 20 Group,” although it now includes 58 nations) recently floated the idea of halting payments on their sovereign debt, in part because servicing those debts is now keeping them from building up funds to prepare for and respond to climate disasters. That’s a measure born out of desperation, Kate writes.

“They’re all concerned about being the next Pakistan,” Kevin Gallagher, director of the Global Development Policy Center, told Kate. Flooding in Pakistan since June has killed more than 1,700 people. The damage is now projected to cost $40 billion, according to new estimates released this morning. That’s in addition to an “already crushing $100 billion external debt burden. Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves stand at just $8.3 billion,” Kate noted.

Disturbingly, Kate reports, “more than 35 percent of V20 sovereign debt is owed to private creditors”—for-profit financial institutions like Blackrock or Vanguard. That means investors are actually making money on payments that are hindering poorer nations from being ready for the next deadly flood or drought or storm.

Think about this in the lead-up to U.N. climate talks in early November. In prior talks, rich nations like the U.S.—which bear a disproportionate amount of responsibility for global warming—have dragged their feet on substantial debt-relief measures, let alone funding for climate loss and damage.

The worst may be yet to come in Nigeria. As The New York Times reports about Pakistan, grieving families are unable to bury their dead loved ones: The cemeteries are underwater.

Good News

While Biden’s plan for a national Civilian Climate Corps hasn’t come to fruition, The Washington Post has a nice rundown of all the states that have decided to launch state-level efforts in the absence of federal action, from California’s early initiative reducing food waste (Never forget: Food waste represents 8 to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions!) to Michigan’s announcement last month that it’s procured $1.3 million in federal funding for the state’s climate-focused iteration of AmeriCorps.

Bad News

The Mississippi River hit record-low levels on Monday, due to an ongoing drought. The drought is already wreaking havoc with shipments up and down the river, and if conditions worsen or persist—as they are expected to—the supply chain chaos will grow.

Stat of the Week

That’s the stunning figure that led the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to cancel snow crab season for the first time ever last week. Climate change is widely suspected to be contributing to the precipitous decline, as the crabs are very sensitive to water temperatures. (For further reading, don’t miss Audrey Gray’s 2019 report on how global warming is devastating New England’s fisheries.)

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

Care About the Outdoors? You Need to Vote in the Midterms.

Many people right now are disenchanted with politics, Heather Hansman acknowledges. But “here’s the thing,” she writes: “If you care about the outdoors, not voting is a recipe for ever more frustration and disappointment.” And don’t forget the state board elections and ballot initiatives!

Know what’s even more snoozy than the word “midterm”? The phrase “state utility commission.” But the officials on those public utility commissions regulate electric, gas, telecommunications, water, and wastewater utilities. They have incredible power over how we generate energy and what kinds of energy we use, because they’re in charge of siting and permitting new facilities. Depending on the state, these individuals are either appointed by the governor (see above re: importance) or elected. This year, there are big state board elections in Montana, Arizona, and Georgia. [Craig] Auster [vice president of political affairs at the League of Conservation Voters] says that the makeup of those boards will be key for whether or not we create a clean energy future.

Auster also suggests keep[ing] an eye on the elections for the railroad commission in Texas, which oversees the state’s massive oil and gas industry, and the land commissioner in New Mexico.

Read Heather Hansman’s article on Outside.

This article first appeared in Apocalypse Soon, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.