Isn't it better to let the earth warm up a bit and pay for the inconvenience?
When the sea rises
Klassekampen, 28 February 2020
The recent forest fires in Australia, which were devastating to both humans and animals, came after a record-breaking drought and a summer with unprecedented high temperatures. Still, Australia's Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, denies that reducing Australia's emissions could have any impact on our climate. Despite the fact that the country is the largest exporter of coal in the world. In other words, the profits made in the short term are more important than the future of our planet. The material damage caused by the fires, which runs in the billions of dollars, is apparently worth it.
These are costs we're already seeing, with 'just' one degree of global warming. As long as CO2 emissions aren't reduced, these types of extreme heat waves and droughts will only continue to increase – and costs will rise to great heights. Nonetheless, it's a frequently used argument in the climate debate that it's too expensive to combat climate change. The costs would not outweigh the benefits of our current fossil-fueled economy. But is it beneficial to let the world warm up a couple of degrees? Let's entertain that thought a bit.
A dam around the North Sea would be an ecological disaster
If we do let climate change get more out of hand, we need far-reaching measures to protect us from the effects of climate change. To provide a concrete example: the ice sheets will melt even more, and sea level will rise further. This means that low-lying countries must raise or construct dikes, with all the associated costs. Or, if that's not feasible, we must give up land and move low-lying cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen.
Fortunately, that doesn't happen today or tomorrow; a sea level rise of more than one meter is not expected before the end of this century at the earliest. But if we do not tackle climate change, this future will become inevitable and we should be well prepared. A recent study, therefore, set out what the solution to this problem should be: a dam around the entire North Sea, called the Northern European Enclosure Dam, or NEED for short.
The dam should stretch from Norway, via the Shetland Islands, to Scotland, and a second part should go from France to England. Total length: 637 km. That's about 20 times as long as the two longest dams in the world, the Afsluitdijk in the Netherlands and the Saemangeum seawall in South Korea. The researchers extrapolated the costs on the basis of these and other projects, and estimate that the construction of the dam requires as much sand as is used yearly by all construction projects in the world. Total costs: around 250 to 550 billion euros. When spread across a construction period of roughly 20 years, that's a small price to pay to protect 25 million people against rising sea levels. The plan therefore garnered some serious attention, even though the researchers themselves see it primarily as a warning.
But the costs of such a project are not only financial. That is why, in my opinion, the plan has little value. A dam will freshen the water in the North Sea, and the tides will cease. Unique ecosystems such as the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, on which large numbers of migratory birds, seals and fish depend, will disappear. A dam around the North Sea would be an ecological disaster of unprecedented proportions. Other shallow seas in the world would also have to be dammed to block the rising water, leading to a similar destruction of ecosystems.
The Northern European Enclosure Dam is just one of the many suggested solutions to combat the effects of climate change. What these solutions – so-called geo-engineering – often have in common is that they may be financially and technically feasible, but the ecological consequences cannot be foreseen. A pure economic analysis is a poor measure of the impact of climate change on our planet, because not everything can be expressed in euros.
Prevention is therefore better than cure. This does not alter the fact that the required greening of our economy is also substantial. It means that all polluting technology, such as gasoline engines, coal-fired power stations and oil refineries, must be decommissioned within a generation and throughout the world, and replaced with clean, equivalent alternatives. That's achievable if we want to, but so far money flows too often in the wrong direction.
Fossil fuels are subsidized with around 400 billion dollars per year. So one Northern European Enclosure Dam per year. What if we take that gigantic amount away from the polluting fossil industries, and invest in an industry that won't ruin our planet – and also creates new jobs? That's not only a logical financial thought, but above all pure profit in the form of healthier air and a better climate.
This text first appeared in Klassekampen on 28 February 2020