At the climate summit in Katowice in Poland, the signatory nations to the Paris climate agreement have tried to reach agreement on concrete measures. Yet the Netherlands is still doing very little to reduce CO2 emissions. Relatively speaking, we generate far more than the global average and have barely reduced emissions in the past few decades. The time has come for us, and other rich nations, to take the lead, quickly and decisively. The Dutch, more than most, need to find an answer to rising sea levels. You sometimes hear claims that climate change is “disputed”, but they are simply wrong. The sea level is rising – the only question is how fast.
This op-ed appeared in the Dutch newspaper NRC on 6 December.
Why are higher dykes and building another flood barrier at Rotterdam not enough to save us? Dutch history resonates with tales of floods and of engineering solutions to overcome them. Many of these disasters reveal a remarkably similar pattern: people drained low-lying wetlands for agriculture and habitation and protected them with dykes. But lowering the groundwater level causes soil subsidence, and dykes prevent the natural influx of sludge that would compensate for this effect. All the new polders are in fact waiting for the final drop of water to make the bucket overflow. Examples include the Saint Elizabeth’s Day flood of 1421, the North Sea flood of 1953 or, further afield, the New Orleans flood following hurricane Katrina.
Whereas the disaster of 1421 affected only a dozen or so villages, today the entire Randstad conurbation is one huge polder of much the same kind, home to some 10 million people and the economic heart of the Netherlands. Worldwide, half a billion people are living in similar flood-prone river deltas. And the threat no longer comes from occasional bouts of extreme weather, but from unprecedented lasting changes in climate and sea levels.