We never thought again after the 1953 flood disaster – long before human-induced climate change. We set up the Delta Commission, which made reasonable plans based on the knowledge of the time. Half a century later, when new ideas meant that the entire delta (not just Zeeland) had to be reconsidered, we created a new delta commission (of which I was a member). New plans and funds appeared. Science-based politics is always a matter of progressive insight. More insight into the complexity of unintended causes and effects (such as eutrophication in water behind closed dams).
The accusation is now heard in many places that if only something had been done about climate change, the floods could have been prevented. In this paper, Christian Wittes, for example, linked the floods directly to the Canadian wildfires and storm in Leersum. Floods are a disaster unprecedented in scale in modern times. But by associating them with all the dramatic effects of climate change, you’re turning it into a miserable, uncontrollable rice pudding. Not every single event of extreme deviation in temperature, precipitation, or wind is evidence of climate change. It cannot be ruled out that the zone of constant rain over parts of Germany, Belgium and Limburg is the result of chance.
Coincidence is in nature. Whether random accidents, no matter how serious, eventually turn out to be a trend that can only be determined retrospectively, with accurate statistics. And the opposite is just as wrong: there is no evidence that floods are not the result of climate change.
Blaming someone is more satisfying than blaming something by blind chance. But let’s not have that discussion now. In any case, we need to take urgent action, both against climate change and to reduce flooding. You could say, in a somewhat Machiavellian way, that floods are good for public support of far-reaching climate measures. But this is short term thinking.
Even worse is the claim that the floods could have been prevented, had it not been for confronting “the forces that could have done something about it”. Even if Dutch greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced, this never guarantees a life without natural disasters.
Delta Commissions offer classes here. First and foremost, it is about the long-term progressive vision of generations, not the long-term view of the cabinets. It started with technocratic solutions, but has grown into an integrated approach in which engineering, ecology and behavioral sciences have their place. Stories of victims emerged, and collective understanding grew. Gaps in our knowledge have been filled. I’ve moved from risk management to prevention and attention to behaviour, to water and people. We understand what can be absorbed: high discharges into major rivers, and how this should be done (room for the river‘). And what has not happened yet: heavy rain in the narrow valleys. It requires sobriety and not false promises. Not suggesting that a storm or flood can no longer occur with the climate plan.
Unfortunately, the climate has become an ideology, rather than a complex system in which we have only partial influence. If the next government has to do something, it is to plan for the long term, make sharp choices and communicate well about the certainties and uncertainties of climate policy. You don’t build insight into rice pudding.
A version of this article also appeared on NRC on the morning of July 26, 2021
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