No, climate change didn’t “cause 242 deaths” in Europe’s floods

Can we say “we told you so” now? Ignoring ecologists’ warnings about bad land management – along with poor governance and costcutting – caused those deaths at least as much as the climate crisis did.

Last week twice as many people died in floods in one small area in rural Germany than die in the entire U.S. in an average year of floods and hurricanes combined. In the media – and it’s safe to assume, the general public – the climate crisis is taken to be a primary cause of the disaster and its 242 deaths, 184 of them in Germany.  This assumption is factually incorrect.

Although the climate crisis is well on its way to being the biggest environmental catastrophe in human history, experts have calculated that climate change only modestly increased the intensity of last week’s storm. It was indeed a 400-year storm, that is, the kind that happens on average, without climate change, once in 400 years. The question is, are the 184 deaths and $34 billion in damages in Germany normal for a 400 year storm with a slight climate-induced intensification? (By comparison, Hurricane Sandy caused twice as much damage and one and a half times as many deaths across the entire eastern U.S., Canada and Caribbean over ten days, as occured in about two days in just a few counties in Germany.)

The answer is no, it’s not normal. Even a 400-year storm does not normally cause this much destruction. The primary cause wasn’t climate, as the experts have calculated. It had to be something else and that something was a massive failure of governance and decades of intentional disregard for basic principles of hydrology and ecological land management. The principles have been understood for at least a century and in some cases, such as “don’t build in a flood plain”, millenia. They’re not new or controversial. They’re things everyone learns in mid-level college courses on the topics. And they predict precisely these kind of disasters.

The ecological principles in question are essential to prudent land-use planning and flood and river managment to protect the safety of people and the health of our land, water, soil, flora and fauna. In essence it’s about using the earth’s natural flood defenses instead of fighting them by using concrete as a weapon in an attempt to beat nature into submission.

The clearest explanation of the situation I know of appeared, interestingly, in a book about landscape history from 1956, and it explains perfectly the conditions that enabled last week’s floods, and nearly all urban floods everywhere.

The 2021 floods explained – in a book from 1956

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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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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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In Indianapolis, trailblazing environmental art once connected the public to their overlooked waterways. Then they turned the art museum into an Instagram playground.

From 2010 to 2015, over 100 engaging and innovative land-art installations in Indianapolis raised public awareness of river ecology and water infrastructure. But the once-prestigious museum behind them has since pivoted to crass marketing gimmicks – yoga, craft beer – and the “greatest travesty in the art world in 2017”.

 

FLOW 19L

 

There’s a famous story by Borges about a map that’s so detailed, it’s as big as the territory it describes. A few years ago, the artist Mary Miss actually made such a map out of metal and mirrors as way to build closer and more thoughtful connections between its residents and their waterways.

It was actually two projects, FLOW – Can You See The River? (2011) and StreamLines (2015). They consisted of over 100 giant oversize map pins with bright red basketball-size pin heads placed throughout the city to mark various features of the local urban waterways such as small dams and sewer outlets. The goal was to increase the public’s connection with the natural urban environment, specifically rivers, streams and water infrastructure. Further, every site had an ingenious interactive installation that not only provided multimedia information about the water features, but literally, physically engaged the viewers by involving bodily movement and play. A worlds-first phone app called Track a Raindrop provided user-friendly visualizations of how stormwater travels through the city infrastructure.

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A rare heath ecosystem just outside Berlin

I recently visited the Döberitzer Heath, a twenty-square-mile nature reserve on a former military training ground outside of Berlin. Like many military bases, it served as an unintended nature reserve for many decades before decommissioning because manoeuvres don’t disturb the ecosystem all that much – you need a lot of empty space for firing weapons – and the land was strictly off-limits to visitors and every other possible use. (Click to enlarge)

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