What if the Water Wins?

The latest issue of Time has a piece I did on how the Netherlands are adapting to climate change.

Just downstream from the Dutch Port of Rotterdam, a storm-surge barrier waits for the seas to rise. Twin latticework arms, each as long as the Eiffel Tower and twice as heavy, stand ready to swing together to shield the city from the wind-whipped waves. Together, they form one of the longest moving structures in the world.

The Maeslant Barrier, or Maeslantkering, is the culmination of an effort initiated in the wake of a 1953 flood, when a storm surge overwhelmed the country’s dikes and killed 1,800 people. Completed in 1997, the $7.5 billion Delta Works — a series of dams, dikes, locks and gates — was designed to put a permanent end to flooding in a country where two-thirds of the population lives below sea level. “The general idea was that water would never be a threat to the Netherlands again,” says Tineke Huizinga, Vice Minister for Transport, Public Works and Water Management.

But even as the great barrier was being tested, it was becoming clear that climate change would one day make the effort obsolete. In 1995 and ’98, several rivers burst their banks, forcing mass evacuations. Then, in 2005, the country watched in horror as Hurricane Katrina shattered New Orleans. “We saw what could happen,” says Eric Boessenkool, an adviser for international affairs at Rijkswaterstaat, the Dutch equivalent of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “And it really changed our mind-set.”

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Jellyfish: A Gelatinous Invasion

Time has published my story on the danger of a world where the seas are ruled by jellyfish.

The jellyfish in the photos didn’t look like they’d pose a danger to swimmers. Thinly veined and translucent, they didn’t have stinging tentacles trailing behind them or dramatic colors signaling danger. But Ferdinando Boero, a professor of zoology at the University of Salento in Italy, knew that they meant trouble nonetheless.

The pictures, sent by a biologist in the northern Italian town of Lerici in July, marked the first time the species Mnemiopsis leidyi, a thumb-size jellyfish known as the sea walnut, had been documented in the western Mediterranean Sea. Native to the Atlantic coast of the U.S., Mnemiopsis was introduced to the Black Sea in the 1980s — most likely from the ballast water of oil tankers — and played an instrumental role in the collapse of the region’s fisheries. “Now the question is, Will it do in the Mediterranean the same thing it did in the Black Sea?” Boero says. “It’s harmless for [humans], but it can be deadly for the fish.”

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A Better Measure than GDP

Time has published my essay on why GDP is a bad way to measure progress.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy drew heat last month when he suggested that countries should factor happiness into their statistics for growth. After all, Sarkozy campaigned on promises of wealth creation, and rejigging the data to include France’s welfare system, famously generous holidays, and je ne sais quoi seems like an easy way to fulfill a promise he is struggling to keep.

But what if Sarkozy has a point? After all, the figure at which he was taking aim — gross domestic product — was never intended to gauge anything other than how much money was changing hands. Yet we routinely use economic growth as shorthand for how well a country is doing. If we’re going to use a metric to track our progress, shouldn’t we choose something that measures the things we care about?

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