Under Swollen Tides, Venice Says More About Our Future Than Our Past

Yves here. Venice illustrates a problem that climate change will force individuals and societies to confront: What will we try to save, and what will we decide, deliberately or via neglect, to sacrifice? And this isn’t just our cultural legacy, but cities, populations, even species. From a related post on Venice at Grist:

Saltwater rushed into St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice last week, submerging marble tombs, intricate mosaics, and centuries-old columns. A man was spotted swimming across St. Mark’s Square, normally bustling with tourists, as the highest tide in 50 years swept through…

The rising saltwater presents a threat to the city’s prized architecture, including wall paintings and frescoes from the Renaissance. Early estimates put the damage around $1 billion so far.

It’s a vivid testament to the risks climate change poses to many of the world’s cultural treasures. In a fitting irony, minutes after Venice’s regional council rejected measures to fund renewable energy and replace diesel buses with cleaner ones, the council’s chamber was swept by floodwaters. Since 2003, the city has been working on an infrastructure project known as Mose (as in Moses) for protection against high tides, but it’s still not up and running, having been bogged down in scandal, cost overruns, and other delays. Venice has plenty of company — some 86 percent of UNESCO World Heritage sites like Venice in coastal regions of the Mediterranean are at risk from flooding and erosion, according to a study last year in the journal Nature.

The fate of cultural heritage — including museums, historical landmarks, and archaeological sites — often gets ignored in conversations about how to adapt to an overheating planet, said Linda Shi, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University. But it will likely play a bigger role in the coming years, she said, as people wake up to the threat. Last month brought the launch of the international Climate Heritage Network, a coalition of cities, tribes, businesses, universities, and other organizations that promise to recognize the harm climate change poses to iconic cultural places and harness “the power of cultural heritage for climate action.”

Many UNESCO World Heritage sites have survived wars, floods, and other disasters over the course of hundreds and even thousands of years. Can they survive the climate crisis? …

So what will get preserved, and what will the world lose? There’s a financial incentive to save Venice. Some 20 million tourists bring in billions of euros every year.

“We might be willing to pay to preserve places like Venice,” Shi said in a statement, “but few other cultural heritage sites and systems will benefit from such attention and funding.”

By Simone Tagliapietra, an Italian citizen, a Research Fellow at Bruegel, an Adjunct Professor of Global Energy Fundamentals at the Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe and a Senior Researcher at the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei. Originally published at Bruegel

While tides high enough to submerge Venice used to be rare, occurring every two to three decades, they have now become increasingly regular. Five of the ten highest tides in recorded history occurred over the last 20 years, with the most recent one having occurred just last year. Is this the new normal?

Hundreds of millions have visited Venice to understand our history, but today it’s a monument to the decades ahead.

As a Venetian, I feel devastated. Seeing St Mark’s Basilica flooded is like watching a family heirloom drift away downstream. While the sight of gondolas being smashed against their moorings, while houses and shops soak has felt like a faceless assault against the Italian way of life. The city is used to dealing with the acqua alta (high water), notably during the winter when storms prowl the Mediterranean and strong sirocco winds — amplified by the narrow shape of the Adriatic — usher waves towards the northwest side of the sea. But this time has been different. It has been a catastrofe.

Take St Mark’s Basilica, which dazzling golden mosaics have narrated for centuries, like an open book, hundreds of stories taken from the Holy Scriptures. This gem of humanity has been flooded only six times in 900 years. Four of these floods have now dampened our doors over the last two decades. The last one was just last year.

The increased frequency is a clear consequence of climate change. Water from melting ice sheets and glaciers has led to a rise in global sea level of around 15 centimetres during the 20th century, creating a desperate challenge for coastal cities across the world. Venice, among the most vulnerable, represents the first case of a potentially long list.

Global warming has already reached 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, due to past and current greenhouse gas emissions. There is overwhelming evidence that this is resulting in profound consequences for ecosystems and people. Extreme storms that typically occur once per century could hit the world’s coastal cities at least once a year by 2050. By that time, more than 1 billion people are projected to live in the low-lying areas that will be in the path of those storms. This would amount to having 3,800 Venices’ underwater at the same time.

The dramatic call that loudly emerges from flooded Venice is clear: the world needs to scale-up its climate change mitigation efforts, while also investing deeply into adaptation measures.

On mitigation, the science is stark: limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is the only way to protect humanity the world from the most dramatic impacts of climate change. To remain within this boundary, global greenhouse gas emissions have to rapidly decline, to reach net-zero in 2050. Urgency is dictated by a well-established fact: due to human activities, the global average temperature has already increased to date by approximately 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This is becoming technically and economically possible, as most of the technologies needed to achieve global climate neutrality in 2050 are now available, at ever lower costs. What is needed are policy frameworks able to intelligently promote deep decarbonisation by accompanying the economic and industrial transformation this necessarily implies, and by ensuring the social inclusiveness of the overall process. For this reason, Green New Deals might well represent a sensible policy response to this challenge. Europe will soon start showcasing such initiative with its European Green Deal.

Alongside mitigation actions, measures must also be implemented to adapt to the various impacts of climate change, which occur or may occur in many areas of the planet — e.g., modification of the precipitation regime, reduction of water resources, increase in the frequency of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, floods and droughts. Economic sectors that depend on climatic conditions, such as agriculture, forestry, fishing, seaside and mountain tourism, health, transport, the energy system, financial services and insurance, may be severely affected by these impacts. Preventive action through the implementation of measures to adapt to certain impacts of climate change are crucial, as the costs of such preventive actions are less onerous from a socio-economic point of view than those resulting from the damage due to the same impacts. In the case of Venice, the Italian government has been discussing a project to keep floodwaters out of the city since the early 1980s. The project, known as MOSE and consisting of a deployable underwater dam system blocking the three entrances to the lagoon from the sea, has been under construction since 2003. After 16 years of work and €5.5 billion spent, it is yet to enter into operation, postponed by bureaucratic complications and corruption. Sadly, as we all see, climate change does not wait for either bureaucrats nor judges.

When work started on the St Mark’s Basilica, the architects, workers and priests must have known that they could never live long enough to see the masterpiece they were building. But that is the story of almost every cathedral in Europe. We do not embark on many projects like these ones nowadays, but today as we fight to save our warming world, we will all have to do so once again.

The Russian poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky once described Venice as “the greatest masterpiece our species produced”. I may be biased, but I suspect we will never surpass it. And yet, our determination to rescue the city will say as much about our species as the imaginations that built it.

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23 comments

  1. Dirk77

    The author seems optimistic, e.g., thinking technology will save us if the policy is good. And perhaps optimism is necessary in spite of it all. But if one were to poll the other species on the earth on what fate would they prefer: to die because of climate change; or to die because their habitat was destroyed by, or they were hunted to extinction to feed, too many people? Given that, I am not a fan of an optimism that thinks the solution won’t hurt a lot. I like the other species around. Cultural landmarks not so much.

    Reply
      1. urdsama

        Perhaps, but to badly paraphrase something I saw years ago:

        “Things can be replaced, living things can’t”

        While I acknowledge the things under discussion can’t be replaced, they are not alive. They don’t have emotions, feel pain, loss, etc.

        At the end of the day if the choice is between things and other species, so long things. And at the rate things are going, I’m not even sure homo sapiens should be protected if the cost is every other living species.

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    1. salvo

      I don’t know if technology will save “us”, but I’m pretty sure that “we” will nevertheless employ any technology to try to save “us” regardless of the side effects. In any case, as I see it, the ruling classes will never allow the structural changes necessary to solve the problem in a “natural” way to happen because this would primarily require to change the underlying economic system undermining the power structure their privileged status relies on. “Technology” is not just the totality of means to facilitate/enable/maximize the extraction of natural “resources”, it is also a symbolic token for the absolute rule of man over nature (that is to say, everything else including men as natural beings): The climate crisis, the ecological breakdown, are a direct result of the employment of technology on such basis, the power relation in which man absolutely rules above nature (which reflects the dominant social and economic order)

      Reply
    2. salvo

      btw … is a way it’s ironic that science which essentially lays the foundation of that destructive power relationship finds itself now increasingly under attack because it reveals the consequences of such relationship

      Reply
  2. a different chris

    >the world needs to scale-up its climate change mitigation efforts

    the world needs to start its climate change mitigation efforts

    Fixed it for him. Humans only know how to build (which is its own form of destruction, ask a tree), they don’t know how to back off. So we’re screwed.

    Reply
  3. cat sick

    The problem is more that the city is sinking tather than the water is rising, and that boils down in a large part to the land underneath Venice, A more extreme version is Jakarta which is sinking in parts by 25cms a year, which is what happens when you suck your drinking water out from the water table underneath you and then wonder why the land is dropping …..

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        1. skippy

          “btw … is a way it’s ironic that science which essentially lays the foundation of that destructive power relationship finds itself now increasingly under attack because it reveals the consequences of such relationship”

          Its not butter is an old ad about mother nature, nothing to do with science, tho some do bang on about it. Sadly economics or political machinations don’t use such anti freedom and liberty methodologies.

          Reply
    1. paul

      That report rings very true, I visited venice very reluctantly earlier this year, and was pleasantly surprised. Outside of st mark’s square and the main drag from the railaway station, it was a pretty easygoing place, (though the preponderance of eshausted young female eastern europeans running bars, gave it a rentier/plantation feel).
      There was an abundance of anti cruise ship posters but I failed to see any mention of the oil pipeline.

      Not astonishing was the lack of children, if you build a city on mud and then excavate that mud, do not expect sympathy,or optimistic families.

      The food definitely relflected the mood.

      Reply
  4. salvo

    btw … it’s also ironic that right wingers (like the Mayor of Venice) who usually deny/downplay climate change suddenly become “believers” if it helps to divert from their own responsibility

    Reply
  5. disc_writes

    I am not a climate denier, but the Venice floodings are more a symptom of Italy’s dysfunctional political system than of sea-level rise – or subsidence, for that matter.

    Debates about the sea barrier MOSE started after the 1966 flooding. It took 53 years in order NOT to complete the project, and it will take a few more before it is actually completed, if it ever is. MOSE is now >300% over-budget.

    Even if it is completed, many doubt that MOSE can actually work. Not to mention that the parts that were installed first are already in such bad shape that they will soon have to be replaced. And the maintenance costs are way too high for a nearly bankrupt country. By now we have run out of money and political capital to replace MOSE with something that could actually work.

    I am starting to accept that Venice will not be inhabited in the future, and I took my children there in October so that they could see it now that it is still possible.

    The floodings are probably more an aspect of civilizational decline: as the resource base shrinks, there is not enough to both satiate the predatory elites and do maintenance.

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  6. samhill

    This is a good brief documentary of past and present:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxpGWcACW6k

    Been watching too much Richard Wolff lately, occurs modern Venice is the perfect example of the madness of end capitalism, whatever good it might have brought over the last 400 years it now destroys everything it touches including the most valued and precious things we have, like a junkie stealing from his parents. Author leaves out that in the 1960s they decided Venice needed an industrial zone on the lagoon hard to believe, right? Vast quantity of fresh water to run the industry was pumped up from deep aquifers causing the city to sink to the level of the original, brilliantly engineered, waterproof foundations, global warming is just the coup the grace. It’s impossible no one knew, but we’re in a system that forces stupid decisions, at this point cascading stupid decisions. I’m not optimistic, Venice will become ever harder to live in, then ever more abandoned, then permanently – and the mega cruise ships will continue arrive en mass to ogle the devastation.

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  7. The Rev Kev

    Looks like Venice is only a small part of a larger mosaic. With the rise of sea levels worldwide, it is going to be a matter of triage. That means that some places will receive a high priority in saving, others will be saved as best can be done as it floods and others will just be let go as being hopeless to save. We do not have anywhere near enough resources to save everyplace so some hard decisions will have to be made. Moveable art in vulnerable places will be, well, moved.
    As for the buildings, if it is just a few buildings then they can be moved to higher ground. If it is a city like Venice, then action is going to be have to made to do some heavy duty engineering to try and flood-proof it. Places like southern Florida and the Pacific islands have no chance of being saved so they will have to be evacuated over time. But when there is a will to take action in the face of flooding, then it is remarkable what can be done-

    https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/magazine/2019/07-08/egyptian-temples-excavation-abu-simbel/

    https://mashable.com/2015/05/26/abu-simbel-relocation/

    Reply
    1. RBHoughton

      Speaking of that larger mosaic you mention Your Grace, my concern is for South East Asia where I live. When Western traders from India started promoting international trade in the area 2-3 centuries ago they changed the way goods were distributed in every country, diverting them from their traditional routes to inland towns to new routes to ports. Thus was Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok born and Jakarta, Rangoon, Saigon, etc., developed and a great many other ports became centers of productive hinterlands. We did not have to colonise these places, they changed their road systems to catch the increased trade we brought, and gave us the influence we sought.

      There had long been concern about ports as piracy was commonplace but greed outweighed caution until now. Here in Hong Kong it would be necessary to build a bund across the western harbor approaches from Green Island to Tsing Yi – a huge undertaking incorporating roads, underground railways, hotels, ferry piers, schools and housing. This reclamation might connect with another recently announced reclamation to provide land for low-cost housing just to the west. This proposal, if done, would make the harbor like a river flowing in from Rambler Channel and out at Lye Yi Mun. It would still be possible to walk the harbor front and enjoy the sea breeze and lights.

      The alternative which I fear might be preferred by the authorities is a two meter high wall right around the waterfront, perish the thought.

      Reply

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