After the flood you strengthen the dykes

The New York Times has an excellent, if slightly triumphalist article up about how the Dutch handle flooding risks and water management in the face of climate change, most of which focuses on the technical nitty gritty, but which also has some insight in the mentality behind them:

“It’s in our genes,” he said. “Water managers were the first rulers of the land. Designing the city to deal with water was the first task of survival here and it remains our defining job. It’s a process, a movement.

“It is not just a bunch of dikes and dams, but a way of life.”

Of course it’s a way of life in a country that has been literally won from the sea which without dykes would be three quarters flooded. It’s no coincidence that the waterschappen — the local water management equivalents of city councils or muncipalities — are our oldest democratic institutions. The Netherlands is shaped by a thousand year struggle of keeping out the sea, winning new land from it and regaining what was lost through storms and flooding. With the most recent disastrous flood still firmly in living memory, it’s no wonder there’s a seriousness to water management and climate change that a country like the United States, perfectly willing to let a major city drown, lacks.

So while our politicians might be just as idiotic and in denial about climate change as anywhere else, there is no debate on how to counteract the consequences of it for our country, at least in this context. However, this hasn’t gone entirely without a hitch. The current water management approach and philosophy took time to evolve, in some ways is diametrically opposed to traditional Dutch values.

The instinctive response to the floodings of 1953 was to immediately start strengthening the dykes, but now systematically, according to the socalled Delta Plan. Instead of just strengthening the existing dykes, the decision was made to redue the existing coastline, by closing off all the river openings between the Westerschelde leading to Antwerpen and the Nieuwe Waterweg leading to Rotterdam. A real technocratic approach to things, which ran into trouble once the ecological impact of the closings became known. Hence why the Oosterschelde wasn’t dammed in the end, but got a storm surge barrier that’s normally opened, but closes during storm conditions, keeping the ecology of the estuary alive but still protecting against flooding.

Around the turn of the millennium the Deltaplan was largely completed and it seemed we were save from the water, but then it turned out we forgot about the rivers. The reason the Netherlands is a delta is of course because the Rhine, Maas and Scheldt flow into the sea here and with the more unpredictable weather and more frequent winter downpours, any access river water will ultimately flood here as well. We got a rough wakeup with a series of flood threats in the late nineties, which proved that the previous approach of just damming in rivers with no room for them to roam was no longer working.

types of flood measures taken to give rivers more room for absorbing floods

instead we got a nationwide approach on the lines of what the article descripes for Rotterdam: Room for the River. Create room for a river to meander and it has more room to absorb flood water. Counterintutitive for a country that has always prided itself on taming water, not working with it. And certainly there has been local resistance against e.g. deliberately returning a polder back to the sea. But on the whole the idea that climate change means more unpredictable weather and therefore more flood danger that needs to be defended against, is not controversial. And as a country we are rich enough to defend ourselves against such relatively simple dangers. The problem is that the more unforseeable dangers of climate change are still largely ignored and that for the past decades we’ve on the whole had more climate change skeptic than aware governments…

More proof that climate change is real — as if any was needed

Found via Alex, here are two Dutch climate researchers at Realclimate, who found a 1981 climate prediction by denialist bogeyman James Hansen:

To conclude, a projection from 1981 for rising temperatures in a major science journal, at a time that the temperature rise was not yet obvious in the observations, has been found to agree well with the observations since then, underestimating the observed trend by about 30%, and easily beating naive predictions of no-change or a linear continuation of trends. It is also a nice example of a statement based on theory that could be falsified and up to now has withstood the test. The “global warming hypothesis” has been developed according to the principles of sound science.

Which is another indication that even more than thirty years ago the implications for climate change were known or at least suspected. That we’re still talking about the climate change “controversy” is purely due to political machinations by economic interests who have a financial interest in denying climate change. Thirty years onwards the evidence is now undeniable, yet the same well funded “skeptics” are still obstructing progress towards mediating climate change. Unlike with the destruction of the ozone layer, where we did manage –barely– to start reversing the damage just in time (and it will still take decades to completely restore the ozone layer) climate change is too far to be stopped or reversed easily and the best we can do now is just migitate the consequences.

Most of the blame for that has to lie with the skeptics: there was a worldwide consensus at the end of the eighties that climate change was real and needed to be combatted. Yet effective measures have remained rare, due to the lobbying efforts of the industries that would be most affected by such measures. They took the lobying infrastructure set up earlier to help out the tobacco industry and used it to discredit climate change as a concept. The end result is thirty years of wasted time as we had to wait until climate change was undeniably real, even for (some) Republicans. Climate change was in any case unavoidable, as it was already ongoing when we first started to suspect it, but we could’ve used those three decades to make the end point less bad.

Should we worry about science fiction’s denial of climate change?

Mark Charan Newton worries about the cult of science fiction and how this influences the debate on climate change:

There’s so little time to hold back anthropogenic climate change (assuming you accept the unequivocal science in the first place). Leave it too long, and it will be too late to bring back CO2 concentrations to the necessary levels, causing a huge variety of issues that I’ve gone on about many times before. Dreaming up science fiction, Big Ideas, will not address the actual problems of dumping huge amounts of greenhouses gasses into the atmosphere in the first place. Moreover, this SF is diverting attention, political and financial resources away from urgent action. What this also does is play right into the hands of corporate lobbyists who will use it as an argument to delay such urgent action even further, usually to the benefit of [insert polluting organisation here].

I do agree with Mark on his broader point, that it is pointless and counterproductive to look for a quick technofix as the solution to climate change, but worrying about the pernicious influence of science fiction in this is worrying about the tail wagging the dog. Yes, science fiction readers and writers alike are constitutionally more keen on technowizardry as the solution to all our woes than the normal run of the population, but we’re not the ones driving the debate. It’s the ExxonMobil and Philip Morris sponsored think thanks we have to worry about, these are the ones that are fueling the deniers.

In fact, what’s so disappointing about those science fiction writers who are in the denial camp is how much they follow the recieved wisdom there, rather than come up with original ideas of their own. See for example Mark’s criticism of Neal Asher’s ideas about climate change and it’s clear Asher has nothing new to add to the debate. It’s all hockey sticks, cherry picking and (deliberate) misunderstandings of what certain scientists mean with “tricks” in the context of statistical analysis. (I’m glad that Asher for the most part doesn’t feel the need to pollute his fiction with such long debunked nonsense. Love his fiction, don’t agree with his politics on climate change, don’t mind at all if these two are kept separate.)

So unlike Mark, I think most prominent climate change deniers in science fiction like Asher are followers rather than leaders, a symptom rather than the disease. We do need to worry about misplaced faith in technological solutions to climate change so that we don’t remain passive while waiting for a cost free, pain free solution, but science fiction is the wrong place to combat it.

Climate change denial hits Dutch government

Government party VVD wants to stop funding the KNMI, the Royal Meteorological Institute because it actually takes climate change seriously. According to member of parliament René Leegte the KNMI is a partisan organisation that listens too much to the IPCC (Dutch). What’s more, according to him twenty percent of the KNMI’s researchers work for the IPCC and are therefore certainly not to be trusted.

A shocking display of truthiness, roundly mocked in the Dutch media, but these accusations are done in the context of a debate about the possible privatisation of the KNMI. By throwing doubts about its independence and realibility Leegte attempts to make it easier to sell the idea of getting rid of it to parliament and the voter. It’s done very clumsily, but that it’s done at all is worrisome. More and more our rightwing parties are using Republican tactics to force through their ideologically driven policies.

Holland’s sad renewable energy record

renewable energy's share of total energy production per EU country

The Open Knowledge Foundation kids held themselves an EUStat Hackday a few days ago, exploring European energy data. Of the various infographics they created, the above one is the most striking to me, seeing how renewable energy production in the Netherlands largely flatlined in the last decade (1998-2008). Only the UK, Norway and Poland were as bad or worse. In the context of the EU’s stated goal of having 20 percent of energy consumption being from renewable sources it means this decade has been wasted, no success booked in getting renewables off the ground. Not surprising, with the kind of governments we’ve had these past ten years, who if not quite actively hostile to the whole idea, never did much to encourage the growth of green energy. Subsidies have been laughable, direction lacking and every time decisions had to be made, the wrong ones were made. One example being the liberalisation of the Dutch energy market, in which energy suppliers and energy network companies were forced to separate, which immediately let to takeovers by foreign companies, leaving government that much less able to influence or direct energy policy.

Which explains why the three biggest new powerplants to be build are the coal fired plants E.on, Electrabel and RWE/Essent want to build in Rotterdam and Eemshaven — and yes, all three are foreign companies. These plants do not quite fit the EU’s plans for reducing carbon and sulphur emissions, now do they? The European Court of Justice (ECJ) advocate general seems to agree, in their advice to declare the permits given for these plants illegal. It all fits the hidebound, stupid policies of previous and current governments, who have been happy to let the industry take the lead and may now have to pay the price for such shortsightedness.