The climate is changing, the mostly cheerful people seem to be saying, but what are we going to do about it? Life goes on.
No such video has emerged this time. Perhaps there aren’t as many cheerful people. This year’s flood is the worst the city has seen in over 50 years, and two people have already died. More flooding may be on the way as high winds continue.
These spectacles remind me of the course I taught on climate change in Venice, in the spring of 2016. What my students and I learned is that even though we can see and feel this crisis all around us, it often seems like something happening elsewhere, or in some ill-defined future. What does it take, I kept asking in class, for us to focus on it? And would that attention help us adapt more deliberately or intelligently?
As a literature professor, I was interested in discussing how writers, scholars and activists can represent the climate crisis, transforming it from an abstraction to something immediate. The news puts that challenge on display for us each day, on the front page. The flooding in Venice competes for attention in a crowded marketplace for natural disasters. Fires still burn in California, bush fires have broken out in Australia, a record-breaking cold snap has hit the northeastern United States and there are, no doubt, other weather extremes happening elsewhere around the planet.
My students understood the mechanics of how the use of fossil fuels heats the planet. But most had not heard of feedback loops, mass extinction or concerns about a worsening refugee crisis. What they didn’t understand, in short, was the scope and the urgency of the problem. And on many days it was difficult to connect what we were talking about to what was happening outside. Our classroom, on an island in the middle of the lagoon, had windows that opened right out onto the sparkling water, exuding the serenity long associated with Venice.
So, near the end of the semester, we went on a field trip to consider up close how Venetians were responding to climate change’s palpable threat.
The major attraction was MOSE, or the Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, the massive mobile flood barriers under construction at the mouth of the lagoon. We began at the visitor center, housed in a slick building complex. It featured beautifully produced videos, an elaborate model of the lagoon and graphically rich pamphlets with detailed maps. It’s more than just the barriers, explained a very well-dressed guide in a flawless if slightly accented English. Multiple projects all around the lagoon are also meant to strengthen natural defenses. The gates themselves, the representative continued, are impressive and modern. When the project is finished, the guide promised, it will eliminate the acqua alta all together.
Then we went to see MOSE itself. There was a lot of concrete and rebar, and some of it rose very high. The boat floated past, and then turned around. There wasn’t much to see, really. But it was awe-inspiring nonetheless to think that, underneath us, deep in the water, lay a barrier that would eventually rise up and hold back a flood. The thought was sublime. I could understand why the city’s leaders had thrown their support behind the project. It would not only be practical — it would also be a monument to human ingenuity and technological prowess. It would be a physical manifestation of the will to transform the natural world to meet our needs and wants.
MOSE, still under construction, was due to be completed in 2011. The project was supposed to cost $2 billion but has cost about $6 billion. (And possibly a billion seems to have gone missing, in a scandal that led to the arrest of 36 people.) The barriers are designed to withstand sea level rise of about eight inches, according to journalist Jeff Goodell, and they’re supposed to be able to withstand storm surges as high as nine feet tall — if it is ever completed. Scientists predict that by the end of the century, sea levels could rise by six feet.
Another professor on the trip, a lifelong Venetian, expressed frustration with the project, which has drained resources from smaller-scale efforts. The students also left unimpressed. They felt there were a lot of promises being made that were unlikely to be met. What about the rains that could bring water directly onto the low-lying city? At some point, wouldn’t the barriers have to go up permanently?
My colleague insisted that we next stop at a museum on the island of Pellestrina. It didn’t seem very popular. The guide, who spoke English much less fluently and was dressed much more plainly than the MOSE representative, talked about the devastation of a storm in 1966 — its heights rivaled only by the current flooding. The students crowded around the models he showed them. One showed the Murazzi, the flood barrier made of Istria stone — the same kind used to protect Venetian buildings from saltwater — mined and brought from the mainland by boat in the 18th century. Creating this barrier was, in its day, an enormous undertaking. As sea levels rise, the need for such labor will only increase.
For one of their final assignments, I’d asked my students to reflect on a place in the city. They wrote me beautiful essays about topics such as San Marco and the Bridge of Sighs. A few students recalled returning to Venice from a weekend trip and being confronted by flooded pathways and boats with canceled services. The high waters made it impossible for the vaporetti, or water shuttles, to pass under the pedestrian bridges that crisscross the canals. Returning to their apartments was an adventure, they said, that they wouldn’t soon forget.
I also hoped they would remember the day that we walked to the edge of the very thin island and climbed to the top of the Murazzi. Humans have been remaking landscapes for as long as they’ve existed. Already, they’d expended tremendous effort trying to make the lagoon safe from flooding. One of the great challenges of our time is deciding how we ought to adapt — with a single, heroic effort or with a lot of smaller things, building on existing defenses and trying to learn from people of the past.
This was what I was thinking as the students ran down onto the beach. Though it was blustery and rainy, they seemed happy and carefree. They took pictures, and asked me to join in a few of them. In the background was the Adriatic, deceptively calm.