Six years after finding themselves at the forefront of Europe’s political crisis over refugees, thousands of Greeks are now refugees in their own country.
On July 21, a small wildfire began burning over the northern half of Evia, an island around 30 miles northeast of Athens. Over the next 20 days — most of which exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or 38 degrees Celsius — it swelled into a vast conflagration, sweeping from one coastline of Evia to another and racking up a staggering balance sheet of damage: 120,000 acres of burned forest, hundreds of millions of euros in economic loss, and the wholesale evacuation of dozens of villages and thousands of islanders. Two people were killed.
The devastation, though shocking, isn’t new: Swaths of Greece burn virtually every summer. This year’s destruction pales in comparison to the summer of 2007, when fires across the Peloponnese and southern Evia burned 670,000 acres of forest and farmland. And for human life, worse still was the summer of 2018, when the seaside town of Mati was razed by one of this century’s deadliest fires, killing 102 residents.
What sets this summer’s fires apart, however, is the Greek state’s explanation of why they’re happening. “The climate crisis,” as Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in early August, “is here.” But after decades of privatization, austerity and boundless military spending, the state is in no position to combat it. In places like Evia, Greeks have been largely left to fend for themselves.
It’s a cautionary tale: Across southern Europe and beyond, countries — Turkey, Italy and Algeria among them — have struggled to respond to wildfires, as decades of underinvestment have withered the state’s ability to protect its citizens. In Greece as elsewhere, to have any chance of mitigating climate catastrophe, the state must reverse much of what it has done for the last 30 years — and commit to the patient, long-term task of investing in environmental resilience. Otherwise Athens, streaked by smoke, could become Europe’s first uninhabitable capital city.
The roots of this summer’s fires in Greece go back to the postwar period, when breakneck urbanization — spurred by flimsy, often illegal building sprees — lured tens of thousands from the countryside to Athens. Entire coastlines were despoiled with concrete for the sake of touristic development, while colossal tracts of countryside, long overseen by shepherds and olive farmers with stakes in the well-being of the land, were emptied of many of their handlers. Even more devastating, on a global scale, was the environmental damage committed by Greece’s ship-owning magnates, whose ceaseless transport of hydrocarbons, combined with a stranglehold over the country’s political system, made them some of the world’s most stupendous agents of planetary desecration.
Even so, at least until the late 1980s, the state played a large role in securing public welfare. But over the next decade, that started to change. In search of immediate profits, the government sold off chunks of the country’s public sectors, among them telecommunications, electricity and gas. Responsibilities once held by the state fell to private interests, whose priority was to turn a profit off them, or to private citizens, who were left to pick up the pieces.
Take Greece’s firefighting sector. Though nominally under the state’s care, it suffered from under-resourcing: In the ’90s, the government annually deployed a small force of just 4,500 permanent firefighters — aided by thousands of seasonal hires — to stamp out summer blazes. Little attempt was made to harness resources for the long-term care of forestland that might prevent the onset of fires in the first place. Exacerbating the problem, in 1998 the liberal administration, as part of its bid to decentralize government further, uncoupled the task of firefighting from that of forest management altogether. Efforts to stymie fires became tangled in bureaucracy.
It got worse. The financial crash of 2008 and the ruthless austerity that followed — insisted on by the European Union countries now dispatching troops of firefighters to Athens — forced the Greek government to operate within strict budgetary requirements. With only minimal control over its own finances, it stripped back the firefighting budget by more than €100 million, or $118 million. The result was considerable abandonment. In recent weeks, as their homes burned in Evia, residents threw up their arms in despair. “The state is absent,” said one villager. “We were fighting alone,” said another.
There’s a twist. Though severely constrained, the Greek government does have access to substantial sums — but it chooses to use them for other purposes. Most strikingly, the government spends lavish amounts defending its citizens against the supposed threat of Turkey, which has itself suffered extensive wildfires this summer, with at least 160,000 acres of woodlands destroyed along the country’s tourist-saturated southern coastline.
It’s a strange situation: Last year, the two countries, both NATO members, spent over €20 billion arming themselves not against the demonstrable damage of climate change — but largely against one another. Were the Greek government to shift just a tenth of its annual military budget into environmental protection, it could afford to send around 45,000 additional firefighters into places like Evia every summer.
More bizarre still is what, in recent years, is accelerating the arms race. Discovered over the past 15 years, extensive natural gas deposits trapped beneath the eastern Mediterranean, large parts of which Turkey claims rest within its maritime borders, have given new fodder to the decades-old conflict. The irony is close to grotesque: Citizens of two states have been forced to become volunteer firefighters as their governments funnel billions of euros into bolstering claims to the very thing responsible for setting their countries ablaze.
It is, of course, hardly within Greece’s power to solve the climate crisis. But a state that radically reallocates existing resources and puts itself on a war footing against the climate threat, rather than against its own neighbors, could set an example for the rest of the Mediterranean, and beyond. The alternative — scorched land, rising seas, evacuated villages — is certain doom.
Alexander Clapp is a journalist based in Athens who has written for, among other publications, The London Review of Books, Foreign Policy and The Economist.