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The Venetian Flood: a portrait of our planet’s environmental health

Writing: Erica Zaja

Illustration: Mia Takemoto

One of the main reasons for the lack of action, or even concern, regarding climate change is perceiving it as a distant threat: its remoteness, in the eyes of many, makes it unworthy to invest in. However, when Mother Nature blatantly speaks up, even the most sceptical start putting things into perspective. It seems to me unfair that only a drastic, catastrophic natural hazard will trigger discussion on human-driven environmental issues that should by now permeate social scenes and stimulate political action.

This is exactly what happened in my hometown, Venice: a city whose incomparable art, culture and history are proudly supported by submerged ancestral foundations, whose stability is now increasingly being imperilled by the rising sea levels. On the last morning of October, my fellow Venetians woke up to a dramatic view of the flood, resulting from one of the most violent storms that has wrecked the North-East of Italy in decades. The high tide, blown by ferocious hurricane-like winds with peaks of 200km/h, reached over 61 inches above sea level, covering more than 75 percent of the city.

The inconvenience brought about by this record-setting flood - only beaten by the 76 inches that submerged the town in 1966 - caused the locals obvious commuting problems, given their inability to count on the raised walkways that usually ensure the carrying out of normal routines, even in flooding days. However, the most pressing concern remains the severity of the damage inflicted on culturally significant sites such as St Mark’s Basilica, the heart and soul of the city, whose mosaic floors were inundated by the pond-like waters of the lagoon, causing them to ‘age 20 years in one day’ as Carlo Tesserin, the church’s chief administrator resignedly points out.

Although floods have always been part of the city’s background, Venice’s proximity to the sea has become more and more problematic in recent years due to global warming and the consequent rising levels of Mediterranean waters. Research suggests that, given the predicted rise of five feet by the end of the century, the city will experience up to two daily floods, with unspeakable repercussions such as the displacing of an ever-increasing number of local residents, as well as the wiping out of the city’s UNESCO-recognised cultural heritage.

Venice is only one of the numerous vulnerable coastal regions that will sink as a result of the capitalist, greenhouse gas-intensive economy of the Global North. As the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report shows, the destruction of island communities, together with the disappearance of coral reefs and the melting of Arctic ice, will be the major effects of climate change This can only be prevented if the global increase in temperature does not go beyond 1.5°C. Therefore, relentless environmental devastation will only be escaped by the cutting of greenhouse gas emissions by almost half by 2030: an ambitious and necessary, but - I fear - unrealistic goal in such a fossil fuelreliant economic world.

Founded on the belief that the only solution to this technology-driven damage is technology itself, examples of human-centred efforts in tackling climate change can be identified in projects for carbon capture and storage such as BECCS. But will investing in expensive infrastructures that remove CO₂ from the atmosphere, trapping it under the earth, be more beneficial or detrimental given its major environmental implications? Burying the source of our problems under the ground seems to me as an ineffective, furtherly-damaging, and rather hypocritical solution.

Although, by now, human anthropocentrism (or the belief that humans are the most important beings on earth) should no longer be a novelty, its scope never fails to surprise me and, I must admit, it inevitably strikes me when it concerns my own birthplace. The forceful outcome of the Venetian environmental crisis has unearthed a typically Italian issue, that had almost fallen silent amongst the media over the last few years. In fact, as the mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, underlines, the tragic damage to the city’s heritage could have been prevented by the long-overdue system of underwater floodgate barriers, known as the Mose project, started 15 years ago and drowned, itself, in corruption scandals, which have hindered this major electro-mechanical venture from being brought to completion.

This goes to show, once again, how man’s obsession with the creation of new technologies fails in the provision of desperately needed solutions. Natural disasters like that which has hit Venice should make us ponder whether focus on technological progress is being rightfully placed: perhaps, rather than accelerating, the rhythm of life ought to go back to moving at a slower pace, in order to realign human lifestyles to the harmonic natural cycles that we have, hopefully not irreversibly, upset.

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