Never again, we thought after the 1953 flood disaster – long before man-made climate change. We set up a Delta Committee, which drew up sensible 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 set up a new Delta Committee (of which I was a member). New plans and funds emerged. Policy based on science is always a matter of progressive insight. More insight into the complexity of the causes and unintended effects (such as the eutrophication of water behind closed dikes).
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 newspaper, Christiaan Weijts, for example, linked the floods directly to Canadian forest fires and the storm in Leersum. The floods are a disaster of unprecedented magnitude in modern times. But by linking them one-on-one with all the dramatic effects of climate change, you turn it into an unmanageable dystopian rice pudding. Not every individual event of strongly deviating temperature, rainfall or wind is evidence of climate change. It cannot be ruled out that the stationary rain area over parts of Germany, Belgium and Limburg was the result of a coincidental coincidence.
Coincidence does exist in nature; whether accidental incidents, however serious, eventually turn out to be a trend can only be established retrospectively, with careful statistics. The opposite is equally wrong: there is no evidence that the floods are not the result of climate change.
It is more satisfying to blame someone than to blame something by blind chance. But let’s not have this debate now. In any case, we need to take urgent action, both against climate change and to reduce flooding. You could say, somewhat Machiavellianically, that the floods are good for public support for far-reaching measures in the field of climate. But that’s short-term thinking.
Worse is the claim that flooding could have been prevented, had it not been for counteracting “the forces that could have done something about it.” Even if Dutch greenhouse gas emissions had been reduced considerably, this is never a guarantee for a life without natural disasters.
The delta committees offer lessons here. First of all, it concerns progressive insight in the long term of generations, not of cabinets. It started with technocratic solutions, but grew into an integrated approach in which engineering sciences, ecology and behavioral sciences have their place. Stories emerged from victims, collective understanding grew. Gaps in our knowledge were closed. It went from risk management to prevention and attention to behaviour, to water and people. We understand what can be absorbed: high discharges in the major rivers, and how this should be done (‘Room for the River‘). And what not yet: very heavy rainfall in narrow valleys. It takes sobriety, not false promises. Not to suggest that a storm or flood can no longer occur with a climate plan.
Unfortunately, climate has become an ideology, instead of a complex system over which we have only partial influence. If the next government has to do something, it is to plan for the long term, to make sharp choices and to communicate well about certainties and uncertainties in climate policy. You don’t build insight on rice pudding.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 26, 2021