Reporting on climate change in the face of terror

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands—We learned of the terrorist attacks in Brussels the way many people get news these days: with a polite, anonymous buzz in our pockets. As we sped out of town on a train leaving the city, my colleague Joris van Gennip and I reached for our phones and read about bombs and bullets at a Metro station and an airport in the heart of Europe. Or as the banner headline screamed in the Dutch newspaper Metro the next day, “Oorlog in België”—war in Belgium.

We were midway through a reporting trip on climate change with GroundTruth fellow Skye Moret, and our itinerary had us heading into the Dutch countryside. As climate change brings more intense rainstorms, The Netherlands is strengthening flood defenses in some places and pulling them back in others. We were on our way to see a village that the national government had returned to wetlands, essentially turning the area into a giant sponge for regional flood control.

To Joris, a Dutch citizen, the attacks were especially frightening because they happened so close to home. But the news was also unsurprising. “I’ve been saying it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ there’s another attack” in the region, he said, echoing counterterrorism officials who made similar comments to the press in the hours after the attacks. “What we feared has happened,” said Belgian Prime Minster Charles Michel.

The news was also upsettingly familiar to me, even though I’m an American. This is my second trip to Europe for GroundTruth to cover climate change. Late last year we went to Paris to cover the United Nations climate talks, which were overshadowed to some extent by the terrorist attacks of November 13. We wondered then, too, if we should scrap our plans to write features about climate change—a diffuse, slow-moving problem that often feels far away—and instead shift our focus to terrorism. When something so horrible as the attacks in Brussels or Paris happens, it can be blinding. It’s hard to see how anything else matters.

We made the same decision in Holland as we made in France: stay the course. Climate change is a different kind of threat than terrorism, and it doesn’t feel as immediate. It’s a slow burn. But it’s changing our lives in profound ways, and in the long run it could do more damage than any terrorist attack—here in Europe and at home as well. “ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States,” as President Obama recently put it to the Atlantic. “Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.”

As we keep reporting in The Netherlands, it strikes me that climate change adaptation and counterterrorism actually have some similarities. At a dike reinforcement project in the farming village of Nieuw-Lekkerland, I asked the director of the national flood defense program if even piles of money and engineering expertise could prevent a devastating flood in the face of rising seas and more intense rainfall. How could he be sure The Netherlands would be safe?

“Safe does not mean nothing can happen,” said Roeland Hillen. “It is important to keep people informed and to realize there is a chance, although very very small, that something could happen.”

He wasn’t talking about terrorism, but he may as well have been.

In the city of Rotterdam, I put the question directly to Chantal Oudkerk-Pool, Rotterdam’s senior advisor for Climate Change Adaptation: Is climate change a national security threat? She said no. “At this moment I think we’re very well protected, and by looking ahead, and by looking at the future, I think we’ll manage to stay at that level.”

Urban planners and climate adaptation officials like Oudkerk-Pool talk about “building resilience,” and that applies equally to climate change, terrorism and all kinds of shocks that can throw peoples’ lives out of balance. But there are many ways to find stability again. From big pieces of infrastructure like dikes and seawalls to something more intangible, like a connection to the land or a sense of community.

We got a sense of that in the Noordwaard Polder, the farming area that we were bound for on that train from Rotterdam when we got the news about Brussels. The Dutch government just finished a years-long project to return the Noordwaard to floodplains in order to minimize the risk of flooding, but people still live there. Anneke van Lelieveld is one of them, and she misses her neighbors who took buyouts for their land and never came back. While she sees the need for the project that has upended the land her family has called home for generations, it’s not easy to adapt to that new reality.

“The climate is changing, there are troubles, and I realize that something must be done,” van Lelieveld said. “I hope that the old soul comes back in this area, because the old soul is gone.”

“You have to look forward,” she said.

Chris Bentley is a GroundTruth climate change fellow reporting on climate resilience in coastal cities.