Sunday 8 December 2019

Miriam O'Callaghan: 'Climate alarm bells cannot be ignored'

The world pitied Italy as floods brought devastation, but there are signs of climate change everywhere, writes Miriam O'Callaghan

Venice is well used to acqua alta. The sirens go off, the boots and waders go on, as does life among the islands and neighbourhoods, locals and tourists alike picking their way along the passerelle or wooden walkways. But year on year, Venetians and Italians generally are noting the changes
Venice is well used to acqua alta. The sirens go off, the boots and waders go on, as does life among the islands and neighbourhoods, locals and tourists alike picking their way along the passerelle or wooden walkways. But year on year, Venetians and Italians generally are noting the changes

Miriam O'Callaghan

All week in the civic jewels of Florence and Venice, 66 (or sessanta­sei) has been a susurration across the piazze, locals gathering in black and booted knots to discuss the waters rising in their cities.

For floods in Italy, 1966 is the year. In Florence, the relentless rain sees the Arno burst its banks, killing 30, devastating homes, businesses, Renaissance monuments and artworks; the walls of water when they collapse, making a sudden archipelago of the city.

Today, the height of the floods is marked on white marble wall plaques, many at 5m high. "To here came the Arno on November 4, 1966."

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In 1966 on the Adriatic, the same relentless rain, swollen rivers and scirocco see Venice even more afflicted. Accustomed to living and working by the tidal centimetre, recorded and relayed by the station at Punta della Salute, Venetians are lashed by metres-high waves, the residents of the low-lying lagoon islands taking to their roofs as their neighbours, crops, animals, livelihoods are swept away. On November 4, 1966, acqua alta, the storm-tide hit at 1.4m, becomes a historic acqua granda at 1.94m.

Fifty-three years on, Venetians are weeping openly in front of TV cameras, hip-deep or waist-deep in water, depending on their height. PM Giuseppe Conte arrives, lends a hand. The Lega's Matteo Salvini arrives and takes selfies. The locals talk of how in recent years, the acqua alta is getting higher, more frequent. This week the acqua alta became acqua granda again, this time at 1.87m. Versions of "Now, three times. The worst week since we started records in 1872" echo across the floodwaters submerging the crypt, bones and mosaic-treasures at the basilica of San Marco, under gaze and wings of the angel Gabriel and the Marzocco.

The experts put the floods down to a triple physical threat: subsidence caused by the city's dubious foundations and human pumping, the rise in sea-levels in the lagoon (25cm in the last 100 years), and the frequency of extreme weather events caused by global warning.

There is common talk about the fourth threat: politics. Specifically, the Three-Monkeys approach of the Right, with an added sprinkling of climate-denial. As the waters rose in the lagoon and the controversial Moses barrier failed to hold back the sea, Partito Democratico (PD) councillor and vice-chair of the Venice Environment Committee Andrea Zanoni posted on social media of "the irony that the [council] room flooded two minutes after the majority Lega, Fratelli d'Italia and Forza Italia rejected our amendments to counter climate-change".

While the lights went out, social media lit up with consensus about political karma, and how when it comes to the effects of climate change in Italy and the rest of Europe, it is likely to be huge.

Venice is well used to acqua alta. The sirens go off, the boots and waders go on, as does life among the islands and neighbourhoods, locals and tourists alike picking their way along the passerelle or wooden walkways. But year on year, Venetians and Italians generally are noting the changes.

In the summer comes heatwave after heatwave in "African plumes". This year at 42 degrees, people cooled off in pools, fountains and the sea saying 42°c is bad, but look at France and Germany where it's 45°c. More frequently, people are asking what is happening to their spring, their autumn? What's taking their winter birds so long on their way south? Where did the bats go? What is it with the weird lightning or the warm, wet winds? And they're not wrong.

At Halloween, my son's vegetable man, who has a passion for Ireland, gave away his pumpkins to his regulars, mortified by the size of them. From the photos, Sylvanian Families would have had a ball. The pumpkins couldn't take the heat, he said. Neither could the courgettes. Bad year for them.

And no wonder. Even in October, Venice temperatures were regularly in the high 20s, sometimes over 30°C.

Locals stuck to tradition, sweating in their jackets, glowering at the English-speaking tourists slapping around in flip-flops and belly-tops announcing "hey, we just love your weather".

While the world had its eyes on Venice, in the south of the peninsula Puglia, Calabria and Sicily were being pounded by their own extreme weather. There and nationally, the term tromba d'aria (tornado) appears regularly now in the headlines. In the strange and beautiful hill town of Matera, current European Capital of Culture, locals raced the floods to their upper rooms, watching civic furniture and trees slaloming down deadly canyons.

On the west coast, Liguria is regularly hit by rainfall normally associated with the Philippines and Himalayas. Much like our own Donegal. In Scalp Hill the monster rain moved a mountain. In Genoa, a couple of years ago, it raised the dead, catapulting coffins down streets-turned-torrents. Meanwhile in Naples, online wags are posting the white-water views from their balconies, wondering whether this year Babbo Natale will be arriving in diving gear or on a jet-ski.

Across Europe, extreme weather is exposing the defrosted dead of World War I, Roman settlements, medieval river-stones, their runes warning of catastrophe. More prosaic and urgent is its revelation of how unprepared Europe is for the hydrological, geological, health and financial impacts of man-made warming. Even here at home, we're not escaping. Already the souped-up Atlantic is seeing hurricanes and wannabes creeping into the higher latitudes. Two within 18 months.

A potential sea-level rise of above 1m has critical consequences for a small Atlantic island where 40pc of the population lives within 5km of the coast. Just last week, climate expert Prof John Sweeney was warning of the "joint probability" of a 3m storm surge. We've just been lucky so far. According to him, the devastation is coming.

The climate deniers will say 'ah here we go again with the catastrophising. Hasn't she said it all before?'.

She has. She does. She will. Here's why. Expensive American pollsters tell politicians there, here and everywhere that the campaign stories and slogans they produce for them in their alchemy of attitudes, are only starting to worm their way into public consciousness, when they themselves are sick and tired of telling them, saying them. (On that basis watch out for oodles more Reckless Fianna Fail from the party who, this very week, lashed out three billion for broadband the public will never own.)

To extend the US pollsters' findings to climate change, means we can never hear enough, of what can go wrong enough. Particularly when that 'wrong enough' will be principally affecting our children and grandchildren. We lit the long climate-fuse under our planet. It is under them the Earth will explode.

Last week, Venice was counting the cost in more than numbers. Like every city in Italy, it is considering its future Right or Left. The thousands of Sardines filling up the piazze the length of the peninsula are not fish, but anti-fascists, four friends from Bologna starting a popular counter-movement to Salvini in his anti-migrant, pre-election outings.

Salvini is not alone. At home, too, the election dog-whistles are out, the warm, glistening meat of suspicion and division being dangled, cynically, over segments of the electorate. Officially, the meat itself is whisked away, deemed dangerous, unsafe for consumption. But the reek of it remains.

In the context of climate change, every election in every ward, town, city, country will decide not just how future generations live, but increasingly whether they will live at all. In July alone, 217bn tonnes of Greenland ice thundered into the Atlantic, the effects on the Gulf Stream as yet unknown.

Expensive government spin claims Ireland will lead the EU on climate change. The ruinous reality is the opposite: our agri and transport emissions are delinquent, politicians are sod-turning and celebrating new runways, the recent rash of road-projects signals an outbreak of cute-hoorism, this lamentable 20th Century disease set to wreak havoc on our children in the 21st. Lead on climate then? Sure. If you take out the napalm-hose to water the garden.

On every continent the climate alarm bells are ringing. Yes, our house is on fire. This is not a drill. Whether our children survive the blaze depends on the politics we choose. Will it be the kind that races in, grabs them, stamps out the flames? Or the kind that says, not at all, warmer winters are good for them? As biodiversity disintegrates, the temperatures and waters rise around them, at least they won't have to turn on the heat.

Last week in Europe, the political weather is heavy. Carlo Levi's Christ could not have stopped at Eboli. The waters would have swept him away.

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