King Canute is not famous for his fears about climate change, but review the histories of the 12th century and the Viking despot can seem farsighted. In Historia Anglorum (c1129) Henry of Huntingdon records that, having requested his throne be carried down to the shore, Canute ordered the waves “not to flow over my land, nor presume to wet the feet and the robe of your lord”. Deaf to his command, the tide persisted, leading Canute to conclude that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and that the sea obeys eternal laws. Today, most climate scientists might possibly agree.
The Dutch have understood this for centuries; a quarter of the Netherlands is below sea level. The Royal Palace in Amsterdam, built in the mid-1600s as a monument to Dutch civic ambition, could also serve as a tribute to the architects and engineers who have long struggled against the water. Beneath the palace are 13,657 timber piles driven deep into the swamp-like soil, spreading the load and preventing the building from sinking.