Must we simply accept the loss of beloved buildings and cities to the floods and rising seas of the climate crisis?
Thijs Weststeijn is professor in the Department of History and Art History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, where he chairs the research project ‘Histories of Global Netherlandish Art, 1550-1750’. His latest book is Foreign Devils and Philosophers: Cultural Encounters between the Chinese, the Dutch, and Other Europeans, 1590-1800 (2020).
Edited byMarina Benjamin
As an Amsterdam-born art historian, for the past three decades I’ve enjoyed guiding students and other visitors along the concentric canals that cup the city’s 17th-century historic centre (now a UNESCO World Heritage site). With its tall gabled houses, arched bridges and stately municipal buildings, old Amsterdam has survived in a remarkably pristine fashion the wars and urban development that affected many other European cities. But for the past year or two, I have noticed that my students’ appreciation of the city’s visible antiquity has acquired a new dimension. This monument to human ingenuity, which rests on thousands of wooden poles hammered into the marshy soil, now seems to have a longer past than it does a future.
Amsterdam’s ancient foundations suffer from what is known as ‘pole pest’, brought on by sinking groundwater caused by increasing droughts. In 2020, like many of the city’s residents, I had to leave my house for months as the wooden foundations and ground floor of my building were completely refurbished in cement; and it is only a matter of time before Amsterdam’s medieval churches and Royal Palace suffer the same fate. At present, even casual visitors to the city cannot miss the bridges and quays shored up by temporary scaffolding as the wooden foundations await replacement.
At the same time, the city, built in a river delta on land below sea level, is threatened by rising sea and river waters, and the giant sluice in IJmuiden is kept increasingly busy pumping excess waters from Amsterdam’s rivers into the North Sea. According to this year’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by 2100 global sea levels are expected to rise between 0.5 to 1 metre and, ‘due to deep uncertainty in ice sheet processes’, a larger rise of 2 metres by 2100 and 5 metres by 2150 ‘cannot be ruled out’. In 2019, Deltares, a consortium of experts in sea level adaptation, examined the impact of different scenarios for the Dutch coast, including a managed retreat: that is, a migration of the population eastward to higher areas. By 2021, their warnings already seem outdated, as the southeast corner of the country experienced dramatic flooding when excessive rainfall caused rivers to overflow their banks. There was notable damage to the built heritage, including the 13th-century Church of St Nicholas and Barbara in Valkenburg.
It seems that the Dutch will have to come to terms with the fact that they will not only lose their immaterial heritage such as ice-skating, but also much of their material heritage. In fact, the Dutch are canaries in a global coalmine: historic heritage on all continents is under threat from the climate crisis. To the extent that this is a highly emotive issue, consider how the world grieved when the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris burned in 2019. So many values and sentiments of identity and belonging are invested in historic heritage. How will we cope with the much more substantial loss that awaits us?
The alarm was first sounded in 2005, when the World Heritage Committee published a warning to all member states to ‘seriously consider the potential impacts of climate change … and to take early action in response’. Other institutions followed suit, most recently the International Council on Monuments and Sites, in declaring a climate and ecological emergency. In 2018, the leading scientific journal Nature Communications surveyed the risks in the Mediterranean area until the year 2100. The first city on their list to be affected was Venice, subject to increasingly frequent saltwater flooding. The city’s current protection – MOSE (for Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico), a series of retractable gates set in the Venetian lagoon and alluding to the biblical name Moses – was unfortunately designed only for a limited rise in sea level. In similar danger is the Croatian coast, particularly the old bishopric city of Poreč, followed by Carthage in Tunisia. Picturesque villages in the Bay of Naples, the crusader city of Acre in Israel, the temple of Ephesus in Turkey, and even modernist architecture in Tel Aviv also run a high risk of being flooded. Not only is the built environment painfully exposed, but so too are moveable artefacts. This year, the Louvre in Paris, situated dangerously close to the river Seine, has begun the transport of 250,000 artworks to a new conservation centre in the north of France…