Fleeing to Norway to escape rising sea levels

Published on
November 18, 2022

The following article is originally published as an NRC Opinion piece (in Dutch) on November 9, 2022. The article is written by Dr. Ingrid Boas, Associate Professor at the Environmental Policy Group at Wageningen University, who specialises in the subjects of climate change and human mobility.

Fleeing to Norway to escape rising sea levels

The Netherlands is flooding. The news has been full of it all of last week. If we don’t intervene, we can expect a metres-high rise in sea level, forcing us to rethink our delta’s design and maybe even relocate. The Klimaatverkenner (Climate Explorer) documentary invites us to start thinking about moving to Norway, where there is enough space, and where we are welcome and safe from the sea.

The first episode of the Klimaatverkenner ends with an interview with a scientist who reproaches the documentary-maker for devoting too much attention to the Netherlands, while forgetting about poorer countries that also need a new home on this Earth. It’s a valid rebuke, and yet, it’s also good for once to turn the discussion around. How does it feel for us as Dutch people to be the victim? Not the Dutch as all-knowing experts and conquerors, creating polders, building dykes, arming ourselves and supporting other countries with our expertise. No, as victims this time, at the epicentre of future climate migration.

For years now, research has been done on climate, migration, and mobility, and nearly all of it focuses on places far from here. Focusing on the Netherlands suddenly brings the discussions in these far-away places, such as Tuvalu, the island state threatened by rising sea levels in the Pacific Ocean, very close to home – and this should be cause for renewed humility.

This is not only about the ability to relocate to a safer place. It is possible, but it’s Plan B. As the Tuvalu climate activists, and with them many social scientists, have been trying to tell us for years, it is about the loss of a culture, a language, and the memories attached to a place.

They are angry, the island states like Tuvalu or the Marshall Islands: angry that international donors decide, top-down, that relocation is the best solution, which in turn limits the help available for adaptation on the islands. They have a different slogan: We don’t drown, we fight! They want money and aid, and rightly so. Not to relocate, but to fight, to preserve who and what they are.

Restructuring the Delta

How does this kind of social perspective fit into a narrative about the restructuring of the Dutch Delta? Can we adapt while retaining our monumental buildings, our nature, our memories, and if so, how? What are the limitations we’re facing? As it stands, the story we hear on Dutch TV is mostly about water management.

That’s a good start, but it’s also important to look further than this technical narrative. Integrate the knowledge that is already available around the world. Learn from earlier mistakes made, such as in Bangladesh, where the southwest was ‘restructured’ by government and the World Bank in the context of economic viability and rising sea levels; this intervention pre-emptively degraded the area, causing present-day displacement. Learn from island states, where inhabitants are working to better protect their islands and cultural heritage against the sea with the help of indigenous knowledge and the use of local natural sources.

Migration and environmental experts from around the world, who have studied the relationship between climate and mobility for over two decades, are bringing our attention to the socio-political and economic factors of these mobilities that policy- makers, in their quest to fight climate change, sometimes seem to forget. Activists and social scientists emphasise the role of emotions in our decision to stay or relocate, the deep connection people have with a place, and their willingness to fight for it.

Include local inhabitants in shaping a climate-proof future, in shaping their future. Make it an inclusive narrative, learn from and work with other affected parties the world, and awaken the Netherlands’ fighting spirit.