As you approach Greece from the air, smog covers the land like a curtain – a thick grey line separating the deep blue Mediterranean sky from the Pindos mountains that run the length of the country north to south. There isn’t a major fire along the aircraft route, but with more than five hundred active wildfires across the country, the smoke is everywhere.
Greece is facing its worst heatwave in four decades. With every passing year, the country sees more extremely hot days in the summer months. Wildfires are a feature of its ecosystem at the best of times. Now the threat is existential. ‘Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered,’ according to the IPCC report published on Monday. ‘Every additional 0.5°C of global warming causes clearly discernible increases in the intensity and frequency of hot extremes, including heatwaves.’
Three years ago, a fire destroyed the suburb of Mati in Athens and 102 people lost their lives. Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his New Democracy party made it a central pillar of their successful campaign in the 2019 elections. The only lesson they took from that disaster though seems to have been to evacuate people quickly to avoid the loss of human life. Forests, animals and villages have been surrendered to the flames. There has been no attempt to protect people’s livelihoods or the natural beauty of the affected areas.
Greece is facing deep structural problems. Austerity has led to a drastic reduction in the number of firefighters and vehicles. Multiple agencies are competing for limited funding and arguing over who has jurisdiction where. Successive governments have ignored reports commissioned by parliament which advise a wholesale restructuring of the way the country deals with wildfires.
The main recommendation is for fire prevention and suppression to be decentralised, turned over to local authorities which know their areas best. Instead, we’re seeing ever greater centralisation. Firefighters have been dispatched to areas they didn’t know, leaving them unable to do their work effectively. Often they couldn’t get to the affected areas at all. Anger against the government is everywhere. And the fires are still raging.
One inevitable consequence of these fires – as with the effects of global heating everywhere – will be a greater internally displaced population. An official in northern Evia said that 90 per cent of the local economy has been destroyed. Tied to the forest, agriculture and tourism, it’s unlikely to return for many decades. The young are planning to leave, to find work in Athens and other cities. But after a decade of austerity, the Greek economy will find it hard to absorb them. Even if it does, current policy is to remove as many workers’ rights and protections as it can get away with, using the pandemic as cover.
After the fire season is over, the reality of the situation will become clear. Athens itself is increasingly unlivable. The wildfires that reached the suburbs earlier this month burned down swathes of the city’s ‘green lungs’. For days the air was thick with ash, dangerous for people and animals. At the same time, the electricity grid was failing because of both fire damage and high demand. In the middle of a pandemic, with temperatures surpassing 45°C, Athenians couldn’t open their windows or turn on the air-conditioning. The water system too is extremely vulnerable. The failure to build robust infrastructure is almost total. It increasingly feels as if it’s simply too late.