If The Water’s At Your Neck, It Pays To Be Pragmatic

A FUNNY thing didn’t happen to Dutch voters on their way to recent elections.

They didn’t debate climate change.

Which, in one of the world’s more vigorous democracies, strikes one as astonishing. In the febrile atmosphere that marks the climate-change debate elsewhere, the discussion inevitably reduces to money — specifically, whether the imposition of a carbon tax or equivalent environment levy is necessary and affordable. That being so, if any nation’s taxpayers had a pressing fiscal imperative to put climate change at the top of their election agenda, it would be the 17 million people of the Netherlands, where great swathes of land lie below sea level.

The Dutch taxpayers’ basic annual water bill starts at a collective €6 billion. And that’s just managing the infrastructure that already exists.

Then take in the anticipated cost of upgrading that infrastructure, to ‘future-proof’ the country against the anticipated ravages of global warming — anthropogenically-induced or otherwise — and the bill explodes exponentially to a planned €100-150 billion. This projected bill is contained in a report that has long been accepted and recommended on all major sides of the Dutch polity.

<p>Co Zeylemaker/AFP/Getty Images</p>

That’s a big ask for taxpayers at any time, and then one remembers these are austere times of economic crisis in the Eurozone, where everything seems to be on the table for budget cuts.

Yet, in the saturated Netherlands, no-one seems to blanch. The need to secure their future doesn’t allow the Dutch an alternative.

“We don’t have the luxury of a climate-change debate in this country,” says Peter Glas, chairman of The Netherlands’s national water authority. “If we make the wrong decision, we are finished.”

How the Dutch deal with global warming stands in sharp contrast to the polarised forums in other nations. In the Anglosphere, for example, the ‘discussion’ is often reduced to little more than a shouty cartel: on one side the bumptious Moncktons and Morgans and their fellow travellers; on the other, the disciples of the evangelical Hayhoes and Gores — where both sides seem determined to submerge common sense under a deluge of shameless attention-seeking.

Were such colossal budgets as the Dutch endure in the hands of global-warming denialists, it would be political party time. In Australia we’ve seen it from those who make capital from the rights or wrongs of the recently instituted carbon tax. In the northern hemisphere, there’s the ongoing arm-wrestle over whether to drill Alaska’s Arctic Refuge, and the argy-bargy over how fast, if at all, Greenland’s ice is melting.

If this were the US, or even Australia, there’d doubtless be a bit more hoopla for here is something worth venerating: it is Europe’s lowest point — at 6.76 metres below sea level.

To put the pull future-proofing has on The Netherlands’s finances in perspective, the Dutch government that unexpectedly fell in April — the event that prompted September’s elections — did so because it couldn’t agree where and how to slash a general €12 billion from the national budget, to meet crisis-gripped Europe’s austerity edicts from Brussels.

Across Europe, the Dutch endure a reputation for parsimony, even stinginess. Thrift stores like the many clothes-repair shops on any Dutch main straat attest to the fact that these are a frugal people who can begrudge spending a cent more than they have to. Many Europeans would say Holland is the land of deep pockets and short arms.

That basic €6 billion in water management raised from Dutch taxpayers maintains existing sea defences such as the Delta Works around Rotterdam and the Zuiderzee system in the north. These are the massive network of dikes and drainage complexes that the American Society of Civil Engineers deems one of the ‘seven wonders’ of the modern world. This figure also covers maintenance of the vast network of canals, dams and sluices that criss-cross this flat land.

The vulnerable half of the Netherlands critically hosts Europe’s biggest seaport, Rotterdam, and most of its economy. When scientists report that 3,000 km away across the North Atlantic, Greenland’s glaciers are melting at an ever faster rate, it’s big news here. The Dutch care about the planet as much as the next nation, perhaps more so if Greenpeace bumper stickers in middle-class Amsterdam are any measure.

Vulnerable specks of land such as The Maldives and Kiribati, or even more substantial conurbations such as Java’s sodden northwest coast centred on flood-prone Jakarta, could sink under the waves and the global economy wouldn’t much notice anything missing.

But, as Netherlanders like to point out in their cosy ‘brown cafes’ where water laps metres away in canals, if Holland disappears it’s tot ziens to the world’s 17th largest economy, and then some. It would disrupt efficient access to Germany’s industrialised Ruhr region, the heart of the world’s fourth largest economy, to much of wealthy northern Europe and to a large proportion of the world’s largest economic bloc, the wider European Union itself.

With so much at stake, and so much spent, why wasn’t climate change an election showstopper in Holland? It’s not as if the Dutch don’t value democracy or loudly exercise their right to free speech.

Indeed, the Dutch polity is one of the world’s most democratic, and sceptical voters here demand to be intimately consulted by their representatives, as was evidenced during the recent election campaign.

Prime time TV viewers sat through eight debates — eight! — before the September 12 poll. Some 20 party leaders — from the ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy and the Islamophobe Geert Wilders, to the Green-Left and the Animal (Rights) Party — got virtually equal air time. (My favourite moment of the election season was when the re-elected leader of the animal rights party wore a bandolier of carrots over her military-style outfit to the opening of Parliament.)

They debated Europe’s ongoing economic crisis and the Dutch role in dealing with it was the front, centre and near only issue of the poll. Well after that came the usual domestic concerns, such as education and health. And then they debated Europe’s crisis some more. But not climate change.

The issue hasn’t exactly been front and centre of the US presidential campaign either, but for very different reasons than the Dutch poll. According to Professor Pier Vellinga, scientific director of the state-supported think tank Knowledge for Climate in Utrecht, the Dutch examined, weighed up and digested climate-change science long ago — because they had to.

<p>Courtesy Wageningen University, Alterra</p>

Professor Pier Vellinga

“The Dutch have a very intimate relationship with water,” says Vellinga. “We can see the direct threat to our lifestyle and livelihood on a daily basis, possibly more than anywhere else.”

Famously imbued with mercantile common sense that has made the Netherlands one of the world’s richest countries, the Dutch accepted it and all parties agreed to pay billions to be defended from it. And then, says Vellinga, pragmatically moved to create an industry from it. Today, Dutch companies are the world’s leaders in dredging and reclamation, in land-starved places such as Singapore and Hong Kong.

“Internationally,” says Vellinga, “protecting against climate change — climate proofing — is very popular now but reducing emissions is a bit less popular, whereas in The Netherlands in the late 1980s we really started absolute priority for reducing emissions.

“We are very environmentally aware,” he adds. “We are quite a few people in a small area and we are vulnerable to the water, which makes us sensitive to the environment.”

The Netherlands is also located in the heart of one of the world’s most industrialised zones and, as an entrepôt, has built an infrastructure— Rotterdam port and Schiphol airport — that is far larger than its specific national requirements demand. “We are in the eye of the tornado,” Vellinga says. “We have more multinational production companies than the size of our nation might suggest.”

The Netherlands has long been an international champion of climate change, generally ahead of EU decrees. “About 80 per cent of our political establishment accepts corrective measures,” says Vellinga, “and 70 per cent accept the science”.

“Wilders,” he says, referring to Geert Wilders, the firebrand Dutch politician better known for his anti-Islam rhetoric, “is the denialist, but even he has safety-first arguments.” Wilders’ Freedom Party has the Dutch parliament’s third largest electoral bloc, despite big seat losses in the recent poll. It was Wilders who in April brought down the coalition government he’d helped create in 2010, when he broke over government plans to adhere to Brussels’ austerity edicts for EU members.

“We kept a little bit quiet when Wilders was more active because we did not want to become a lightning rod for his activities. We are here to do good scientific research and we did not want to provoke these guys and become a distracting political issue,” explains Vellinga.

One of the founders of the UN’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Vellinga isn’t without his enemies and sceptics. The Dutch magazine Elsevier has described him as “Number One climate alarmist of the Netherlands”, and he says he often gets hate mail from denialists.

But, he says, something deeper motivates the average person to concern for the environment here, where every district is covered by one of the world’s earliest forms of democracy, the famous waterschappen, or water authorities — elected bodies entrusted with maintaining the regional defences.

<p>Koen van Weel/AFP/Getty Images</p>

Koen van Weel/AFP/Getty Images

ONE of Pier Vellinga’s earliest memories is of the refugees his family housed at their home in the early 1950s. They were evacuees from the 1953 North Sea flood disaster, still today regarded as the seminal event in modern Dutch history, when more than 1,800 people were killed in floods that submerged a tenth of the country.

It was this tragedy which prompted the vast Delta Works program and, later, the Delta Commission, which was tasked with future-proofing The Netherlands specifically against climate change. The commission was chaired by Dutch politician Cees Veerman, a farmer and stalwart of the Christian Democratic Appeal party, a member of the current caretaker government.

Veerman says he didn’t approach his job at the Delta commission with any pre-determined view on climate change, not with how or even whether it was happening. “We were entrusted with investigating whether it would impact on the Netherlands, and then recommend what to do to protect ourselves,” he says. “We let the science and our investigations speak for themselves. We looked at all scenarios.” As for the colossal bill anticipated to future-proof the country with some of the world’s most sophisticated engineering, he says, “we see this as little more than an insurance policy”.

“We do business with the sea, and more often than not, the money stays inside the Dutch economy.”

Veerman says he’s both amused and alarmed when he observes foreign debates about global warming and the existence, or otherwise, of it. As a farmer, he sees the effects of climate change for himself on his land; in seasons beginning and ending at unusual times or in the unexpected patterns emerging among local animals, insects and plants.

Growing up through the 1950s and 1960s, Vellinga says it became commonplace for Dutch teachers to encourage the nation’s best and brightest toward ‘Delta work’, to a career devoted to protecting the nation from nature.

Vellinga was one of them. He studied as a civil engineer, and was exempted from military service because he was involved in maintaining sea defences. “I wasn’t the boy with the dike,” he smiles, “but I guess I was almost patriotically driven to this type of work.” Today, 100 PhDs work in his research centre in Utrecht; among them are climatologists, economists, demographers and social scientists.

“It’s not just defending the country but it’s developing ways to sell our expertise in this area,” he says. For example, he consults to the city of Venice on how better to manage its water issues.

“Water management is seen as a Dutch speciality,” he says. “Like if you want to specialise in kangaroos, it’s perhaps better that you be an Australian.”

Australia, he says, “is so vulnerable for climate change.

“When I was at IPCC we were always sceptical about statements on emission reduction from countries which produce lots of coal and oil, like Norway, like Australia, to some extent Canada and The Netherlands because they depend on these resources for export.”

“Australia is close to Antarctica, and all climate models tell us it will have major changes in climate, more so than North America and Europe. Its geographic position makes it more sensitive to changes in the global temperature and air circulation than probably any other country.”

The no-nonsense-get-on-with-it way the Dutch approach their battle with the climate is starkly evident outside the tiny the Dutch village of Nieuwerkerk aan den Ijssel, in Holland’s southwest.

If this were the US, or even Australia, there’d doubtless be a bit more hoopla, for here is something worth venerating: it is Europe’s lowest point — at 6.76 metres below sea level — in a land world-famous for being waterlogged, and overcoming it. If it were anywhere else there’d likely be a boisterous theme park — instead it’s mostly verdant polder.

To the expectant foreign eye it’s all rather disappointing. There’s a car park for just 10 vehicles — The Global Mail was the only visitor when we called in — and a brief four-paragraph explanation of what we are looking at; an unremarkable steel column embedded in a small pond.

Instead of inevitable snowdomes and the naff kiddy toys of tourist kitsch, this emblematic place is just metres from one of The Netherlands’ busiest freeways. There’s no sign pointing here or even an acknowledgment. Motorists rush between Europe’s two biggest commercial ports, Rotterdam and Antwerp, oblivious to the national symbolism here at the heart of Europe Inc.

Which would appear to be its point. The monument is Dutch, matter-of-fact and not to be trumpeted. Plain is good in The Netherlands, whose 17 million people have little regard for razzamatazz when there’s important trading to be done at Europe’s commercial crossroads. They just accept it, and move on without fuss.

Indeed, it’s rather how the Dutch confront the challenge posed by global warming.