Switzerland is famous for its alpine views but I don’t need a dramatic backdrop for my perfect summer’s day. I just need a quiet place by the water and bearable temperatures. As the second heatwave of summer 2022 hits Europe, it seems inevitable we will soon come to dread this season.
I fear the perfect Swiss summer’s day will soon be spoken about only in the past tense. Before I forget, here is mine. I go to the river within walking distance of my home. There is no entrance gate, no charge and no snack bar, just a stretch of cool, clear water, mostly knee deep, with some pools big enough to swim in.
Nature is a greater presence here than humans. There is plenty of shade. Sitting in a dappled area, I am treated to the sight of a common merganser leading her seven half-grown chicks around from pool to pool. My children are lucky that they can share in this idyllic experience. Will their children have the same good fortune?
Coming from one of the Continent’s cooler climates, I am perfectly happy when it’s 20 degrees in summer. Twenty-five I can live with. But when it’s 30 or 35, I want to escape. The living creatures dependent on the river feel the same. And it’s not just about air temperature. Swiss rivers are also heating up with worrying consequences for biodiversity.
We hear a lot about the effect of the climate crisis on Swiss glaciers, which are in steady decline and could disappear by the end of the century, causing an array of chain reactions, some foreseeable, some not.
But what about the rivers? They are equally under threat both in terms of temperature and water quantity. They also rely to a greater or lesser extent on the glaciers for their flow.
A recent EPFL study led by Adrien Michel found that by the year 2100, average river discharge could decrease by 30 per cent in the mountains and 25 per cent in Swiss lowland areas.
That is the most extreme scenario, in which we take no action to curb global warming, and it would also see summer water temperatures increase by 4°C in the Swiss Plateau. The combined effect of warming and water scarcity will have a severe and rapid impact on ecosystems.
In this high-emission scenario, glaciers would all but disappear. Similar predictions were made the by the government’s Hydro-CH2018 hydrological scenarios (admin.ch) last year.
On the other hand, if CO2 emissions are reduced in line with the Paris Climate Accord, “both Alpine and Swiss Plateau rivers would only be 1°C warmer at the end of the century, and discharge would decrease by 5% in mountain catchments while remaining nearly unchanged in the lowlands”.
The goal of the Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, is to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050, compared to pre-industrial levels.
We know from the science that a deep transformation is needed to achieve this goal. Transformation must start early and result in major emission reductions even before 2030. That’s just around the corner, yet there is little sign of this happening.
The latest interim report from UN Climate Change, the UN entity tasked with supporting the global response to the threat of climate change, does not inspire confidence. The results so far have been paltry and the need to increase ambition, to use the UN formulation, is “high and urgent”.
Adrien Michel, with his focus on rivers, gives an indication of what level of ambition is needed. “Our study of river discharge and temperatures shows, for one, that the impact of global warming is inevitable, and that we must begin making changes today, through energy and agriculture policies, for example. It’s also showing us that we can still save a part of our environmental heritage – but only if we act swiftly and aggressively.”
Do you see anything swift and aggressive coming out of the Swiss political system? I don’t. Nor do I see my own behaviour changing enough. Part of the problem is that the enormity of the issue breeds denial or apathy. Responsibility is spread too thin, a version of the bystander effect.
In Andri Snær Magnason’s climate crisis book On Time and Water he talks about how the impact of our lifestyle, the fire we are stoking, is invisible and that we therefore do not perceive our everyday disasters.
“It would be instructive if everyone had to store the oil barrels they use, if we saw the world that way. Our family’s trips abroad over the last ten years amount to a hundred barrels of oil.”
More often than not, I don’t walk to my precious river, I drive. In fact I drive short trips almost every day that could be done on foot, by bicycle or by public transport. Our family will also burn through some barrels later this summer on unnecessary flights.
As I receive another heatwave warning on my phone, and plan to avoid going outdoors for another day, I wonder how long it will be before these unwelcome temperatures become the norm and the perfect summer’s day spent by a cool, clear river will be an impossible dream.