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 the climate crisis 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, and the many billions in damages, were “caused” by the climate crisis. That’s not true.

It’s true of course that intentional disregard for basic facts of environmental science caused most of the deaths, but climate is only one part of this. The rest of the disaster was for the most part predictable under fairly basic principles of hydrology and landscape ecology that anyone can learn in mid-level college classes. There’s also no question that much of the responsbility lies  in the systematic failure of government on a level that is obscene for a modern advanced country and normally only seen in the most failed of nations.

Experts calculated that climate change increased the intensity of the storm by between 3 and 20 percent over what is normal for a once-in-400-years storm, and increased the likelihood of such an event by 1.2 to 9 times. There’s a lot of uncertainty in these numbers because the data and statistical tools needed to make more accurate connections simply don’t exist.

But what it adds up to is, the climate crisis made things worse, and so did willful refusal to undertake the kind of sound land-use planning that is needed to protect the safety of people and the health of our land, water, soil, flora and fauna, and would be necessary even if there had never been any climate change. It’s planning that makes use of the earth’s natural flood defenses, and it’s been known about for decades. A book about landscape from 1956 summarized the situation:

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 during a moderate-to-heavy rainstorm, 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. 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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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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“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”

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

Despite its plentiful lakes, rivers and canals, 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 waterways 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. They say it has more bridges than Venice (although given that it has 14 times as many people, the significance is debatable). 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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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”