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Rome and its River 2009

December 26, 2008

Images sent around the world from Rome this month provided gripping imagery for the changing climate. As heavy and continuous rainfall fell on central Italy, the Tiber river reached record heights, causing bridge closings and warnings by the city’s mayor to stay home.  In mid December the water rose 5 meters in 2 days to surpass the springing points and start to fill the arches of ancient bridges such as Ponte Milvio and Ponte Fabricius. Boats moored near St. Peter’s came loose and were washed into Ponte Sant’Angelo where they piled up and further obstructed the flow, threatening a structure that dates its founding to the time of Hadrian. The Tiber has always flooded and it would be simplistic to point to this flood in particular as evidence of the worsening effects of global warning or even excessive urbanization of the river basin. Deforestation and subsequent erosion and flooding are as old as the Colosseum and plans for artificial diversion and channeling of the river go back to the time of Caesar.  Now, once again, the danger has passed but Romans and visitors have been once again reminded of the forces of nature. The focus on the Tiber relieved some media pressure from the European climate change talks taking place at the same time in Brussels.  Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had threatened to veto the agreement to cut carbon gas emissions if he thought it would hurt Italy’s economic interests, prompting a series of protests and reprimands from Italian environmentalists and other European leaders. Eventually, these dangers, like the floodwaters of the Tiber, subsided and Berlusconi withdrew his opposition saying “I can’t use any veto … because I can’t cast myself in the bad-guy role.”  While the real climate change package which should replace the Kyoto accord is slated for the end of 2009, the outcome of these meetings was and agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels by 2020 and it came with a reasonable economic stimulus package to help this happen (along with disappointing concessions to big industry, especially in Eastern Europe). As the rain continues to fall on Rome this Christmas season it seems fitting (if somewhat ironic) to commit to renew our research efforts on alternative energy, especially solar, in the year to come. The global environmental problems need to be met with the same sense of urgency and coordinated effort with which the rising waters of the Tiber were confronted this month.

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