Venice on the Brink

The thousand-year-old Italian city — a mecca for tourists, home to priceless art and architecture — is now dangerously imperiled by the climate crisis

November 18, 2019

3:36 pm

Rewarding climate skeptics with a trip to a romantic foreign destination seems inappropriate. But it might be worth it to bring them to Venice to see their reaction to “gondolas stranded on top of the bridge” or the tables and chairs of outdoor restaurants “bobbing in the waters.”

For years now, the historic canal city of eastern Italy knew this day might come, but the climate crisis has arrived full force in Venice:

  • As much as 70% of the city, the “Queen of the Adriatic,” is underwater (Washington Post)
  • It has already suffered more than $1 billion USD damage so far from a week of historic floods, that saw the closing of the historic St. Mark’s Square (The Guardian)
  • Venice’s mayor has declared a state of emergency and the closing of all schools, and, as water rose to about six feet, “tourists were forced to clamber through the windows of high-end hotels” (New York Times)
  • Priceless art and architectural masterpieces — from buildings, such as St. Mark’s Basilica, to art by Renaissance masters like Titian; to centuries-old sheet music — have been critically damaged by saltwater, which will only get worse (a second story by the Washington Post)
  • One of Banksy’s most celebrated works, a new piece depicting “a migrant child wearing a life jacket and signaling for help with a neon pink flare,” is now partially submerged underwater (CBS News)

But, but, but … Venice is a canal city. It must get flooding all the time, right?

Well, it is subject to more flooding than the average city, for sure. But, as CBS reported, “St. Mark's Basilica, a structure that dates back around 1,000 years, has been flooded just six times in its history — twice in the last two years.”

A thousand years of history is not a small sample size.

“These are the effects of climate change,” tweeted Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro last week, following a pre-flooding tweet in October that noted “the fight against climate change and environmental disasters is a commitment that we must take on. To the young we must say 'participate with us at #futuro of the world by developing science and technology’.”

What Venice is experiencing is certainly a preview of what many coastal cities will experience over the coming 50 years. The UN’s IPCC report of this past September projects a global sea-level rise of one meter (about three feet) by the year 2100, which spells trouble for many coastal communities around the world. The worst-case scenario here projected by the team of scientists who assembled the report is slightly higher than it was just six years ago.

That same report noted that the kind of “extreme storms that typically occur once per century could hit the world’s coastal cities at least once per year by 2050. By that time, more than 1 billion people are projected to live in the low-lying areas that will be in the path of those storms.”

“#Venezia and the Venetians in the darkest periods have done the best things,” tweeted Mayor Brugnaro optimistically, “and this time we will all stand together again. Let's start from #Venezia to study the effects of climate change around the world.”

Yes, let’s do that. But let’s also take action — before it is too late.

(Home-page photo of last month's Venice Marathon by Roberto Trombetta/Flickr)

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