No, climate change didn’t “cause 180 deaths” in Europe’s floods

Can we say “we told you so” now? Ignoring ecologists’ warnings about bad land management, and cutting government services, caused those deaths at least as much as climate change did.

Last week almost twice as many people died in floods in one small part of Germany and Belgium than die in the entire U.S. in a year of floods and hurricanes combined. Virtually all of the media and the informed public think those 180 deaths were “caused” by the climate crisis. That’s not true.

Climate change is indeed increasing the intensity and number of storms such as the one last week. But that doesn’t mean people had to die. What happened last week was exactly as though a hurricane hit New York and the building regulations only stipulated an ability to withstand 30 mile-per-hour winds, and so the skyscrapers collapsed in the 100-mph winds. The deaths would have been easily preventable, and indeed that is the case because skyscrapers don’t get blown over by hurricanes.

The 2021 floods explained – in a book from 1956

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In Berlin, toilets flush directly into the river (but it’s not just Berlin)

Raw sewage flows into the waterways in Berlin and many other cities on a regular basis. Some are doing more about it than others.

When you flush your toilet in Berlin, it goes directly into the Spree river that runs through the city, or into one of its several canals. This happens on 30 to 40 days each year, sometimes as many as 60, whenever there’s a moderate-to-strong rainstorm. This post is a documentation of just a few of the 120-odd outlets where the untreated sewage enters the waterways. Continue reading “In Berlin, toilets flush directly into the river (but it’s not just Berlin)”

Everything you always wanted to know about green infrastructure but were afraid to ask

Second in the EYAWTKA series. This post is an annotated and tightly edited list of resources on green infrastructure that I don’t think you can find all in one place anywhere else. It began just as some reminders to myself and then I figured maybe others might find it useful. It’s far from comprehensive but it is highly selective – for every link here, many less optimal ones were weeded out.  Specialists may want to skip to the BMP tools and databases farther down.

Green infrastructure is a set of methods for cities to prevent flooding and water pollution by using nature instead of fighting it. It’s a subset of what is often called Best Management Practices or Low-Impact Development. Sometimes it’s called nature-based-solutions or sponge city because it’s about soaking up rainwater.

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The elegant, futuristic coal mine

A sprawling paragon of 1920s-modernist architecture in Germany’s rust belt has weathered decline and rebirth and still looks like the future. A must for every Bauhaus fan.

My birthday present this year was a surprise trip to a disused coal mine. Which was perfect because I’d been dying to go and that’s because this particular mine is not only located in a former rust belt with a fascinating history of environmental destruction and recovery, it’s also the world’s largest assemblage of architecture in the 1920s- and 30s-modernist (often inaccurately called Bauhaus) style outside of – oddly enough – Tel-Aviv. Continue reading “The elegant, futuristic coal mine”

Everything you always wanted to know about degrowth but were afraid to ask

Recently I was asked for recommendations of books on degrowth, which is the socio-economic transformation that will have to take place to due planetary limits on the amount of water, land, energy and materials.  If everyone used as much of these things as Americans we would need five earths in order to meet the demand. So something will have to give. Technology and efficiency won’t solve the problem because it’s been shown that when you make things more efficient people just increase their consumption and so the total use – of electricity or raw materials or whatever – doesn’t actually go down.

Degrowth will mean separating human well-being from the notion of infinitely eternally expanding economic growth, which is such a ridiculous concept I can’t believe anyone ever bought into it. I was specifically asked for books rather than websites or articles so here you go…

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The tree that smells like cake

A much shorter post than usual – just a quick note to say that yesterday I had the good fortune to experience the tree that smells like cake, which is something few people ever encounter, and in fact for many it’s physically impossible. The tree, called katsura in English and Japanese – its native habitat is Japan and China -, releases the scent for just a couple of weeks in the fall, and although the species is not rare it is uncommon, being used occasionally in parks and gardens. But many people are unable to detect the scent, for genetic reasons, so a lot of factors have to fall into place in order for the extraordinary scent to be experienced.

The leaves smell distinctly like cake – some say caramel or cotton candy – and indeed the German word for it, Kuchenbaum, translates as caketree . Scientifically, it’s Cercidiphyllum japonicum. The scent is due to maltol, a compound also present in breads, warmed butter, uncured smoked pork, chicory, milk, cocoa, coffee and roasted malt. I saw it on October 31 and I believe this was towards the end of the scent-releasing period.

Finding a katsura may be easier than you think, because a great many cities now have interactive maps of all their street trees where you can search for whatever species you want to find. Just search the internet for  “urban forest map” and the name of your city, or check the (very incomplete) lists here and here. You’re out of luck if you’re in Berlin, though. In theory Berlin has an online tree map but, bizarrely, it doesn’t have a way to simply search for a species and see it on the map.

Welcome to stuffy, uptight, downtown Munich. Don’t forget your swimsuit. Or surfboard. Or skis.

This is the river Isar in the middle of Munich, just blocks from the city center. Today it looks like a wild natural river but until a few years ago much of the greenspace along the shores was orderly and park-like, the banks straightened and stabilized with stone, concrete and earthworks. This is the story of how a city with a stuffy, uptight reputation (whose accuracy I neither verify nor refute) tore out the orderly, linear shores and restored the river to about as wild a state as possible in an urban center, embracing nature in all its wildness and messy, ecologically healthy vitality – something which even places that are said to be the opposite of stuffy <coughberlincough> are often slow to do.

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“Usage Conflicts”: Berlin debates whether it has enough space to adapt to climate change

This post is available in German at the BUND (German Alliance for Environmental and Nature Protection), here.

To say that Berlin is lavishly endowed with public spaces that are manifestly unused despite being paved is an understatement. I’m pretty sure Berlin has more unused paved space relative to the amount of functioning space than any other major city. (If you can think of one, let me know in the comments.) I am not talking about vacant lots that could hold buildings, or any place with significant foot traffic, or squares or plazas that are actually used, or even the parking lots that exacerbate climate change by incentivizing car travel. I refer instead to the inexplicable empty stretches along buildings and at streetcorners that go unused by pedestrians, sidewalks extravagantly and desolately out of proportion to their foot-traffic load, and large traffic islands and medians. Continue reading ““Usage Conflicts”: Berlin debates whether it has enough space to adapt to climate change”

De-paving with Operation Stonebreak

Water in cities has a critical role in climate adaptation, from bathrooms to backyards to sewer lines. An engaging exhibit in the Netherlands explains how.

 

Here’s a detour to the Netherlands, where I saw an excellent exhibit in Haarlem, at an architecture and urban design museum called the ABC Architecture Center, on how the region’s water systems will be affected by the climate crisis and how the city is starting to adapt.

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Mythbusting the weather: Berlin’s rainy reputation belies a grave lack of water

Despite its abundant waterways and reputation for rainy weather, Berlin is in many ways as dry as Spain or Texas. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions in fines are looming due to ongoing violations of E.U. water protection law. Solutions will be tough: Berlin has 13 mayors and a bizarre water supply system, the only one of its kind in the world.


Berlin is always seen as a watery place: everyone loves the abundant rivers, canals and lakes and hates the grey damp winter; panic – much of it unfounded – over basements flooded by a high water table is something of a municipal religion. The surprising truth, though, is that Berlin is a very dry place with dried-up forests, shortages of water, and extremely low rainfall, in fact less rain than parts of Spain, Italy, and pretty much all of the United States including Texas and Florida, apart from the deserts and parts of California. The climate crisis did not cause any of this, but it’s making everything worse.

Drought risk. Berlin is rated medium-high (red, 4 out of a maximum possible 5), along with Cuba, Haiti and eastern Mexico. “Drought risk” factors in population density and demand for water along with supply of water.

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Green Party in 2nd place in Germany – and why yesterday’s European Parliament election has worldwide impacts

On May 26, Europe had its elections for the European Parliament, which will have massive implications on issues such as climate and nationalism. Here is what you need to know, in 60 seconds:

Why should I care about this election?

The results will have a large impact on how the whole world deals with the climate crisis, inequality (via global trade agreements), human rights (ditto), refugees and other issues that affect everyone.

Just give me the take-home message in ONE SENTENCE.

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Conservative, religious Bavaria has just passed some of the world’s strongest environmental protections

One of the greatest victories for environmental protection in decades recently took place in the German state of Bavaria, and went nearly unmentioned in the English-language media: an extraordinarily strong people’s referendum was approved by a wide margin and has become law. It beggars belief in both the strength of its protections and the overwhelming popular support it received in a famously conservative part of Germany. It flat-out mandates organic farming, ecology education in schools, and stream conservation, among many other things, and stands in stark contrast to the surprising environmental laggardness of Berlin and other parts of the country.

Equally astonishing is the way it became law. Bavarian law prohibits referenda from appearing on election ballots, and it prohibits the gathering of signatures in public. Instead, signers must each make a special trip to their city hall, which is the only place where the petition may be signed, during a two-week signature-gathering period. Eighteen percent of all registered voters in the state did this – double the minimum threshold of 10%. Many signers had long waits in lines stretching down the street in freezing temperatures – more than 11,000 on the first day at Munich city hall alone. The mayor was the first in line.

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Cars 1, Democracy 0: “A new low for city planning in Berlin” says former commissioner as People’s Forum gives way to car traffic

After 26 years of hemming and hawing, the Berlin city council recently decided for good that the central focal point of the federal government district, where a “citizens’ forum” was supposed to be built, will remain a street with car traffic and an empty span of concrete and lawn on either side. The original plans from the time of Germany’s reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall called for this focal point to have public spaces and facilities where citizens and government would interact, the governed and the governors, a democracy lab.

This is a “new low for city planning in Berlin”, said a former Berlin Planning Commissioner. The media has been unanimous in deploring the decision, calling it a betrayal of the people and abdication of civic duty. I was unable to find even one statement  in the meida in support of abandoning the forum. I will argue that the decision has the hallmarks of being fuel for hard-right racist populism.

The outlined square is the Berlin city council's idea of a cheerful and internationally-recognized icon of German democracy
The outlined square is the Berlin city council’s idea of a cheerful and internationally-recognized icon of German democracy

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After a lull, signs of movement on climate change in Germany

Finally, some good environmental news from Germany, whose status as environmental leader has dwindled in recent years from its peak in the 90s and 00s when it made great strides in areas such as renewable energy, green roofs and recycling. Since that time, the country has been “jeopardizing its reputation as a global leader” and “spectacularly missing its 2020 climate target” as the state news network put it – so imagine what others are saying. However, there is at least one large sign of improvement. Last week the environment minister introduced a strong and decisive climate action bill which is the country’s first-ever specific legislation for greenhouse gas reductions with quantitative targets and penalties for noncompliance. Continue reading “After a lull, signs of movement on climate change in Germany”

The City Museum – Gaudí in a scrapyard of the imagination

Another short digression from the environment. The City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri (video here) is one of the most extraordinary places for culture and fun in the world. Occupying a ten-story shoe factory from the early 1900s, it seems to be the result of a mad self-taught tinkerer, the set designers of Blade Runner and Brazil, and the fantasy-art-nouveau architect Antoni Gaudí trying to make an all-ages playground and museum of 20th-century culture at the same time, out of scrap metal and discarded airplanes and factory machines.

It has twisting multi-story slides and climbing cages indoors and out which lead to buses and airplanes and a ferris wheel perched several stories above the ground, tunnels between floors, antique natural history exhibits and carnival game stalls, free-form mosaic-covered art nouveau/science fiction-inspired arches and staircases, collections of parts of historic buildings, a working antique shoelace-making machine, an indoor skate park, the world’s largest pair of underwear, vintage jukeboxes, and a 19th-century log cabin – to name just a few of its many, gloriously incongruous parts.

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