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:
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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)