A grim report on Wednesday said Europe needs to do more to cut greenhouse gas emissions — and fast — or risk rising sea levels, melting glaciers in the Alps and more deadly heat waves.
Climate change "will considerably affect our societies and environments for decades and centuries to come," the 107-page report by the European Environment Agency said.
Throughout the 1990s, the EEA has been "detecting increasing global warming," Jacqueline McGlade, the executive director of the Copenhagen-based body, told The Associated Press. "What is new is the speed of change."
"It takes a long time to see these changes in the glaciers, at the sea level, so like big tankers turning around, they take a long time to change but now that we see them changing direction, then it means that there are warning signals in many parts of our life," she said.
McGlade said it was not too late to act and called on action at European, regional, national and local levels. She said, for example, that climate change should be on the agenda during free-trade talks.
"If we don't do anything, we will be in completely uncharted waters and we will find ourselves spending more money fixing the damages as opposed to having more resources available to adapt and move into a new kind of living."
Major disasters across Europe occur repeatedly in the same areas, McGlade said, singling out flooding along the Rhine or Danube rivers as examples.
She also pointed to Monday's flash floods in southwest England, where dozens of people were rescued from cars, trees and rooftops, empty vehicles were washed into a harbor and two buildings collapsed under the weight of the flood waters.
The "water has nowhere to go and flows across the surface of the roads because we have sealed the soil," McGlade said.
Greenpeace welcomed the report, saying the series of flooding, heat waves and melting glaciers "make people become more and more aware of the consequences of global warming," Steve Sawyer of Greenpeace International told the AP.
Global warming is believed to be caused by human activities, in particular emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.
Europe must continue its efforts to have the 1997 U.N. pact for combating climate change, known as the Kyoto Protocol, ratified, the report said.
The protocol aims to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions worldwide in 2010 to 8 percent below 1990 levels. The emissions degrade the Earth's protective ozone layer.
The United States, the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, has refused to sign, arguing the agreement would be harmful to its economy.
The U.S. also objected to what it thought was inappropriately lenient treatment of emissions from developing nations, which — while not today's biggest polluters — are the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gasses.
So far 123 countries, including all 25 EU members, have signed. But without Russia or the United States the accord cannot take effect, because it must be ratified by nations representing 55 percent of the industrialized world's emissions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly expressed reservations about the pact in the past year, but in May he promised to speed up ratification in return for EU backing of Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization.
The 1990s were the warmest decade on record, and the three hottest years recorded — 1998, 2002 and 2003 — occurred in the last six years, the EEA said. The global warming rate is now almost 0.36 degrees Fahrenheit per decade.
The report singled out summer floods across Europe two years ago and last year's summer heat wave in western and southern Europe as recent examples of how destructive extreme weather can be.
The flooding killed about 80 people in 11 countries, affected more than 600,000 and caused economic losses of at least $18.5 billion, according to the agency.
More than 20,000 deaths, many among elderly people, were recorded during the European heat wave in 2003, which also caused up to 30 percent of crop harvests in many southern countries to fail, the EEA said.
Melting reduced the mass of the Alpine glaciers by one-tenth in 2003 alone, and three-quarters of those glaciers could disappear by 2050, the report said.
Sea levels along European shores rose by 0.03-0.12 inches per year in the last century. The rate of increase is projected to be 2-4 times higher during this century.
The EEA covers the 25 EU countries and Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.