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John Riceburg: Up to our knees in Scheiße

Is this summer of epic rain in Berlin going to be the new normal? John's flooded apartment building suggests that climate change is already part of our daily lives.

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Photo by abbilder (CC BY-ND 2.0)

My neighbour Jenny is like an ersatz grandmother for the whole building – our own little community Oma. She toils every day to maintain a colourful garden in the Hof, exchanges gossip with the neighbours while she smokes her cigarettes and dotingy asks everyone when we’re finally going to have kids.

When I came home last Thursday night, Berlin had just experienced an hour of monsoon rain – Starkregen, as ze Germans call it – and Jenny was in the courtyard together with my other neighbours taking buckets of water out from her ground-floor apartment to a nearby drain.

Except: it wasn’t exactly water. An apartment flooded with water is pretty bad, this was something altogether worse. My brother-in-law, an architect, tried to explain this to me: When the sewers fill up after heavy rain, the sewage from the upper floors of an apartment building doesn’t have anywhere to run off. So it starts rising out of the toilets on the ground floor.

Jenny’s bathroom was full of Scheiße. She could save most of the apartment by blocking the bathroom door with towels. Another neighbor was on vacation – her rooms are still soaking in human waste.

And this isn’t the first time this has happened. Exactly one year ago after similarly heavy rains, the same two ground-floor apartments were damaged. Air drying machines were puttering away for months before the floors were re-finished.

Is this fate? Jenny has lived in the building for decades. The first time this ever happened was last year – and now again. It wasn’t just our building. Big parts of Neukölln were underwater. Just look at the street under the S-Bahn:

The neighbouring Real supermarket was surrounded by sandbags as if we were at war with the weather. Trees were knocked over in Körnerpark and on Karl-Marx-Platz:

Just by coincidence, that same day I was also reading the most depressing article I’ve read in years: “The Uninhabitable Earth” in New York Magazine. David Wallace-Wells explained how the catastrophic effects of climate change can already be observed:

“The Earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now (…) You probably read in your high-school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs were caused by climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 252 million years ago; it (…) ended with 97 percent of all life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate.”

No single weather event can be directly attributed to climate change. There were heavy rains before humans starting massively pumping carbon into the atmosphere, after all. But this kind of extreme weather will get more common every year. This isn’t a far-off problem. The shit is in the apartment right now. It’s almost like that episode of South Park, originally intended as satire: global warming is physically attacking us, like in a horror movie.

“We didn’t have any flooding,” a Wedding-based friend helpfully informed me the next day. Right, well, Wedding is on a hill, whereas my part of Neukölln is just a few metres higher than the canal. Sure, we can re-design the sewage systems and perhaps lift up the whole city in the coming years. Nothing’s impossible. It’s just, this city was designed for weather patterns that have been consistent for hundreds of years, and now they’re changing very rapidly.

It makes me think of my native country, where members of Congress argue there can’t be climate change because, y’know, it’s snowing. Idiots. But it also makes me think of my new country, where we have a self-proclaimed Klimakanzlerin – and are still planning to burn lignite coal and manufacture diesel cars for at least 30 more years. Hypocrites. In a sense, I think the outright deniers at least have the honor of intellectual consistency.

I don’t like seeing my neighborhood under water. I always thought we need to fight climate change to help poor farmers in the paddies of Bangladesh. Which we do. But now I realize that we also need to fight climate change to help my Ersatz-Oma Jenny – and, really, anyone who lives in Neukölln on the ground floor.