Cross-Pond Lessons: What We Can Learn About Living with Climate Change

Living with Climate Change

Living with Climate Change

Two weeks ago, the New York Times published a fascinating article on how the Dutch, who live on land that is at or just below sea level, are living with the consequences of climate change. We read the article with great interest and thought we should share. While you can read the entirety of the article here, if you are interested in some of the key takeaways on living with climate change, read on below!

Lesson One: Denial has Negative Consequences

Because much of the Netherlands sits below sea level, climate change and its consequences are not up for debate or subjective interpretation. Public officials, engineers and even the average Dutch citizen are constantly thinking about the water that surrounds them: where it is, where it’s going, what it’s going to do next. Bordered by the North Sea and subject to flooding from the Rhine and the Meuse, water has always presented a challenge to the Netherlands because it sits below sea level and is slowly, slowly sinking further down. Climate change enhances the dangers by introducing more frequent and fiercer coastal storms that dump more water onto the waterlogged country, and rising tides that reach deeper into land.

When storms and flooding hit the country in the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes. Where floodgates, levees and dams had been the main engineering strategy of the Dutch before this time, the flooding of the 90’s represented a philosophical turning point for the nation. “We can’t just keep building higher levees, because we will end up living behind 10-meter walls,” Harold van Waveren, a senior government advisor in the Netherlands, told the New York Times. They began considering how to give the rivers room to move and swell, as well as how to build in ways where people and water can live together without catastrophe.

More importantly, however, the flooding of the 90’s changed the entire way they approached thinking about a changing planet. They embraced the fact that the climate is changing and they acknowledged the fact that said change threatens their way of life. They took on the challenge head-on and made room for adaptation to fundamentally change the entirety of their society: with innovative engineering, reimagining neighborhoods, thought leadership and forward-thinking policy, and social resilience through inclusion and education. This is a nation that has seized climate change as an opportunity rather than obstacle and the results could very well change the way that other coastal communities deal as well.


Lesson Two: Reimagine the Look and Feel of Cities

The city of Rotterdam has many similarities to Boston: it’s an old port that is still vibrant and vital today, it comes with a long history, and a fairly diverse population that comes from a spectrum of backgrounds and class. You quickly learn that climate change sees no difference between rich and poor, and all citizens have to carefully evaluate their relationship with the rising tides.

For the Dutch, that has meant building a network of fortifications to help hold back the water while also providing its citizenry with the systems and services required for urban life. Shopping centers and parks are built on top of dikes. Basketball courts serve as flood basins (they call them water plazas) and parking garages can double as reservoirs. Involving people from all corners of society has been key. “We became invested in getting more people involved in all kinds of civic issues,” Wynand Dassen said.

To further maximize the transformation of the city, old industrial centers are being reimagined as entrepreneurial spaces and schools. Affordable housing and mixed-use communities provide places for families of all backgrounds to gather and grow, all under the protection of newly built systems that give the waters room to move without being destructive. “A smart city has to be a comprehensive, holistic vision beyond levees and gates,” the climate chief of Rotterdam told the Times. “The challenge of climate adaptation is to include safety, sewers, housing, roads [and] emergency services.”


Lesson Three: Great Feats of Engineering Will Also Help

To add an extra layer of protection, the Dutch have built the Maeslantkering, a massive floodgate the size of two Eiffel Towers toppled over. Its job is to prevent catastrophic flooding of Rotterdam’s port, which is vital to the European economy. In its 20 years of operation, it has never had to be used.

The gate has two arms that rest on either side of the canal. When the gate is closed, the two arms meet in the middle of the canal and lock, then tubes inside of them fill with water so that the two arms sink into a concrete bed. This creates an impenetrable wall to protect the port against the mighty North Sea. The process of moving the two massive arms and getting them into place takes two and a half hours, and the regular testing of the floodgate’s function is often treated like an event by onlookers. The Maeslantkering is an inspiring feat of engineering.

Boston and other ports may not need something so dramatic, but other coastal communities have taken notice in what the Netherlands has been able to accomplish. Government officials, business leaders and other delegations from around the world go to the Netherlands to see everything that has been built and done to combat the consequences of a changing climate. Climate change is now big business for the state. Yet another innovation for the benefit of the Dutch people.

Climate change is a challenge created by people and now it represents a major threat to communities across the globe. Rising seas and the fury of water are just two aspects of climate change that threaten the people of the world. Fierce storms, prolonged droughts, distress of trees and other concerns all have their impact on the way that we live. How we approach each portion of the puzzle, from overcoming the challenges we face to doing our best to prevent further damage, is all a matter of mindset, vision, leadership and inclusion. In other words, if you learn something today, speak up tomorrow, and keep working toward a better future, you can make a difference.

How can your actions today make a difference for tomorrow? Check out some of our other blog posts on simple changes you can make today that can do a world of good.


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