Navigating Venice through the climate change rapids

By Stefania Munaretto – University IUAV of Venice and VU University. The “safeguarding of Venice and its lagoon” has been systematically addressed by the Italian government since the 1970s. At that time a Special Law was issued that puts in charge national, regional, local authorities to achieve three goals: physical protection from flooding and sea storms; prevention of environmental, nature and urban degradation; socio-economic development of the Venice area. In nearly thirty years the Italian government invested over 10 billion Euros for the development of studies and plans and for building protective infrastructure.Will all this investment navigate Venice through the modern global environmental challenges, particularly climate change? The flood protection measures (storm surge barriers at the three lagoon inlets to be completed by 2015 and local defenses in the urban centers, i.e. raising public walkways and lagoon banks to be finished by 2030) can withstand +50cm sea-level rise which is not expected to occur before 2080. Building protective infrastructure alone does not ensure the safety of the Venice region however. Effective management and maintenance of the new configuration of the natural and man-made environment in the face of climate change needs effective governance arrangements. Local public and private actors recognize that the Special Law regime is not adequate to address the new governance needs. Any attempt to reform the law however has failed so far. The main reason is that the Special Law established a government system of central control that left the local authority with little power over decision processes, and allowed only limited opening for actors to interact and for scientific knowledge to be shared. This governmental setting has kept policy-makers, scientists and also citizens disconnected and suspicious with the result that actors have been disputing different views, ideas, beliefs and values in the decision-making arenas, in the court and on the media for over two decades. This situation gradually eroded trust among actors which turned into ineffective coordination and insufficient collaboration. At present this institutional stalemate is the main reason for low adaptive capacity of institutions to climate change as policy learning takes place only within the paradigm shared by the stable and restricted management community. Before any institutional reform could take place in Venice trust among local actors should be re-built. By offering opportunities for actors to interact, trust and cooperative attitude may be slowly developed. Climate change may trigger this process by functioning as unifying threat.

The Venice case is an example of how low levels of social capital, particularly trust among actors, may be partly responsible for low levels of adaptive capacity to climate change. The fact that learning takes place only within an established paradigm then constrains the opportunities to develop innovative policies thus making it difficult to respond to climate change challenges.

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