ATHENS – July wildfires during a record heat wave quickly followed by floods on a Biblical scale that wiped out a big chunk of Greece’s agricultural heartland are a preview of what can be expected around the world because of climate change.
That was the assessment of Greece’s leading climate scientist, Christos Zerefos, who said the country and Europe have to be better prepared for extreme weather phenomena and have civil protection measures in place or face political turmoil.
“If we don’t, we shall be relying and depending on calculations from 50 years ago and from the past climate, which is no longer the same,” he said. “The climate has been warmed up,” he told NBC News.
Zerefos said people are worried because the fires and the storms are a warning of what can happen if the country doesn’t adapt to a new reality. Storm Daniel was the worst disaster in Greece for 400 years, but could become the norm.
“After the year 2050, 2060, all of the Mediterranean will be in bad shape in terms of extreme events,” Zerefos said. “They would happen more often and with larger intensity,” he told the news site.
The disasters in Greece were blamed by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis largely on climate change that’s getting worse as governments around the world stay with fossil fuels and dilute window dressing plans to combat it.
But they also bring a dimension that could bring down governments as critics and rivals in Greece said his administration failed to ensure that anti-flood measures for which it gave municipalities 240 million euros ($257.15 million) were done.
They weren’t and there’s been no accounting where the money went, leading to an investigation – they’re often done in Greece and usually with no results – and people complaining of corruption and incompetence.
Coming after the deadly fires that saw 19,000 tourists on Rhodes flee for their lives and warnings that heat and catastrophes in Greece could see foreigners vacation elsewhere, extreme weather could affect governments too.
Mitsotakis’ New Democracy government put the losses at more than 2.5 billion euros ($2.68 billion) – 10 times the cost of preventive and mitigating measures – and why the European Union is covering it, political damage has been done too.
THEY’VE SEEN FIRE AND RAIN
“And as the weather becomes more extreme, so does the public anger,” said NBC News, which added its teams traveled Greece to speak to scientists, political leaders and people rebuilding their lives after the catastrophic events, “and witnessed what looks to be a new era of climate politics taking hold in Greece and perhaps other democracies in the world.”
The floods were brought by Storm Daniel that swept through the Mediterranean before moving on to Libya where floods broke dams and killed more than 10,000 people, Mitsotakis vowing reforms to make sure Greece is ready for next time.
At least 17 died in Greece as two rivers on either side of the country’s bread basket of Thessaly turned it into a lake, the waters and mud and silt left behind leaving the plains useless for years and further spiking food prices.
Government subsidies are a pittance of what was lost, especially for family businesses and others left without enough to rebuild, and with the land left infertile and unable to be farmed.
Sotiris Boutas, 35, said he and a dozen others escaped onto a roof and had no food or water for two days waiting for rescue, widespread complaints about a failure to respond quickly to those left in distress.
They had no warning either he said although Greece has successfully used text messages on cell phones to alert people of coming weather and other dangers it said saved countless lives.
Boutas ran a restaurant serving souvlaki, the classic Greek dish of marinated, grilled meat. Not anymore. “It’s destroyed,” he said. Only the walls of his house are left and scores of thousands of acres of farmlands and crops were left in ruins.
“Many farmers have lost a lifetime’s work. But some here don’t blame the global effects of climate change but what they see as local corruption and incompetence,” just as in failures to clear woods that became fire tinder boxes.
Many residents said they only received text message alerts when it was too late to evacuate their houses safely, the report said, those systems put in place after July 23, 2018 wildfires killed 104 people who got no warning.
“The government doesn’t care about ordinary people,” said George Archontopoulos, President of the Thessaloniki-based Eyath trade union, which represents local water service workers.
AFTER THE STORM
“The government is now in its second term and is out of excuses,” he said.
“They only care about the big multinationals, big lobby and the big construction companies that are friends of the government,” Archontopoulos said.
While climate change likely now can’t be stopped as governments continue using fossil fuels instead of turning toward wind and solar and sustainable sources that don’t eat up the atmosphere, he said Greece isn’t ready to deal with it.
Mitsotakis said that, “The fact that we are witnessing these extreme events with greater frequency means that we need to plan our civil protection in a different way,” he said. “It’s a war we have to fight with an enemy, sometimes we cannot avoid, sometimes we can contain.”
Phoebe Koundouri, an expert in the economics of climate change at Athens University, told NBC News that while it’s natural for people to be furious at politicians who look the other way as climate change gets worse.
“They are angry, yes. They are desperate and they’re angry at everyone. The solution needs science, it means saying, ‘I understand that climate change is happening and I understand I can be part of the solution,’” she said.
“Politicians need to understand that this is an emergency — but also that there are huge opportunities for job generation,” added Koundouri.
Theodora Skartsi, 60, manager of the Society for the Protection of Biodiversity of Thrace, an environmental group, took NBC reporters on a tour of the National Forest near the village of Dadia near Turkey’s border to show the fires damage.
“Climate change is here and it was an important factor for the strong fire. It’s difficult to fight against it because the forest was very dry and easily burned,” she said, adding that forest management has been ignored, adding to the risks.
Christos Siarnaferis, 34, a volunteer firefighter, said that, “There are people who grew up on this mountain – lumberjacks, hunters, locals, farmers, too – their land is next to the forest. The authorities didn’t listen to them. We had predicted 4-5 days earlier that the fire would get here. They didn’t take us seriously, and that’s the result.”
“People do not trust the government,” Archontopoulos, the union leader, said. “We say here, ‘You live by luck in Greece.’”