Venice – the new Atlantis: Political inaction towards Climate Change is costing a historical and cultural landmark

For too many years now scientists have been warning of the dangers that burning fossil fuels entails for our planet’s wellbeing. Although awareness of the issue has exponentially increased in recent years, clear, efficient and strong action is still non-existent. It appears as though the leaders of the global north have been irreversibly assured by scientific reports and predictions that it would be the global south to first suffer the consequences of the irresponsible and unsustainable lifestyle we cannot seem to alter. However, recent events have been starting to show that the effects of climate change are starting to appear sooner than originally expected for the former. 

When first teaching about global warming (now coined “Climate Change”), teachers often used the example of a completely submerged Venice to explain what would happen if the situation became very severe. The thought that this catastrophic effect would be a part of a distant future has now vanished. In November, Venice saw its worst flood of the last 50 years, the last one of this calibre being in 1966, which was found at the time to be unprecedented. (1) However, this time around, experts have clearly stated that this flood is mostly due to rising sea levels, which are caused by melting ice caps, themselves caused by “atmospheric warming”, a fancier term for “climate change”. (2)

It is clear that mediocre actions and fake promises that politicians, not only Italian ones, are providing can no longer suffice. It is undeniable that more warnings, in the shape of natural disasters, will occur and will be increasingly devastating. (3) Another recent one of these came this past summer: the devastating heatwaves which made three European countries experience their highest temperatures on record and caused wildfires and several deaths across the continent. (4)

The response from the Venetian mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, was to blame climate change on social media for this ‘acqua alta’, which is the Italian term for an exceptionally high tide. He also called for an urgent termination of the billion-euro flood barrier system, known as the Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico (MOSE), which would enable Venice to adapt to climate change by deviating the rising water from the urban canals. (5) It may look like a good plan, however, when considering the long-term effects of climate change, it points more to a temporary solution. 

A report from the UN has stated that the correct way to respond to the threats posed by climate change is to a certain degree adaptation but it should come hand-in-hand with mitigation, a step which is hardly seen in European, or even global, political agendas. (6) However, both are necessary: the report suggests that a successful outcome will not be achieved if both are not targeted. At this point, recent scientific studies have concluded that for several years we will face a harsher climate, thus, will need to adapt to it with technological advances. (7) These reports also indicate the need to fight and reverse these changes. So, why has the only response by the Italian state been to adapt? If one does not tackle a problem from its core, it will continue to reappear. Therefore, until serious action is addressed towards climate change, the historical and cultural landmark that Venice is, is at a very high risk of becoming the new Atlantis. 

Luigi Brugnaro has expressed his alarm with the situation by saying that the city is at “its knees,” quite literally. (8) With nearly 190cm of water rising above normal tide levels, the residents and many tourists that the city regularly houses have found the water to reach their knees, at least. (9) More so, all schools were closed for the duration of the high tide and a call for a state of emergency was expressed by the mayor as he witnessed the desperation of the people who had lost their homes, with two even losing their lives. (10)

This is not the first time the province has had to deal with acqua alta, in fact, some ecologists state it is “normal.” (11) The patriarch of Venice, Francesco Moraglia, described that the people he visited around the city were in a very similar, desperate, situation a year ago when the water rose to more than 150cm. (12) However, this year as the high tide coincided with the aggressive South-eastern Sirocco wind, the result was exceptionally harsh. Venetians are frequently prepared for high tides and flooding but, this time, the pumps used to lower the rising waters were submerged and the idyllic flood-protection system MOSE was still not functioning. (13) This meant the damages to the city were estimated at 1 billion euros. (14)

These are, of course, effects not nearly as devastating as other natural disasters such as typhoons, droughts or fires caused by climate change. However, this incident cannot be forgotten. Just the symbolic meaning of a submerged Venice should be enough to prove to national government that their policies towards the climate crisis are not proving sufficient. Even when MOSE is finally completed, there will come a day when it will not be able to contain the rising sea levels. Hopefully, we will not need many more tragic events of this nature for action to finally escalate sufficiently.

Valeria Sinisi García

Valeria is a second-year student in a BA International Relations at King’s College London. Her main research interests include sustainability, climate migration and environmental law as well as questions on human rights and feminism. Valeria has previously written for another student publication, in which she critically engages with European political inactivity towards climate change.