Climate change and political degeneration in Greece
Wolfgang Knorr is a climate scientist, consultant for the European Space Agency and guest researcher at the Department of Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University
This is the fourth part of a series of articles by Wolfgang after his return to his home in Greece. The other articles are “Climate scientist hit by major climate event” , “The intuitive sense of impending doom” , and Climate Change: When Official Panic Sets In Just click on the title to read the article).
According to a widely held view, Greece is the cradle of democracy, and therefore it is not surprising that the Greek prime minister has tried to single handedly usher in a new phase in the political governance of climate crises. After all, nomen est omen, his political party is called the “New Democracy”.
What happened? The Greek province of Thessaly had been struck twice by a climate driven extreme rainfall event that caused almost biblical floods – the city of Volos saw more than 1000 mm of rain in two events in September against a usual monthly amount more around 50 mm (!). These events caused widespread death by drowning of people and (especially farm) animals, huge agriculture losses, villages cut off, bridges undercut by torrential current, the water and electricity supply of entire cities cut for days, and even beaches bulldozed out of recognition by the water masses.
Kalamaki beach August 2023
Kalamaki Beach 15 October 2023, same viewpoint and direction.
Not long after those turbulent and often deadly September days came the regional and local elections: enter Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister. His political buddy and Prefect of Thessaly, Kostas Agorastos, was running again for office. Agorastos was airing election spots explaining to voters that this time, given the urgency, they should refrain from “protest votes”, and should instead engage in “constructive voting”, because a lot needs to be done. To help him with his campaign, Mitsotakis himself travelled to the capital of Thessaly, Larissa, which had been hit extremely badly by the floods, and topped up the message even further: If you don’t vote for Agorastos, nothing will be done, and you will probably not get your compensation. The logic being that if his buddy is kept in office, things would then run all smoothly.
I am writing this story, because it is so important for understanding the way climate policy has been working and evolving, and I mean real climate policy, not what we are told climate policy was like. Principally, we can discern four phases, and the innovation by the Greek PM was to enter firmly into Phase 4. Here is what I mean by the four phases:
- Assess the climate problem and see if it requires immediate attention. This was back in the late 1970s, and the answer was no.
- Defend your position, even if it requires outright denial or downplaying.
- Once the problem cannot be ignored any more – around the year 2000 the climate warming signal had been detected in the temperature record – admit the problem and promote yourself as part of the solution.
- As soon as there is a genuine perception of an urgent crisis, use the panic to further expand profits and power by offering largely technological solutions.
There is a whole book devoted to Phase 1, Phase 2 is and has been very widely discussed, even though most commentators now seem to see outright climate denial on the way out, and Phase 3 is well documented by the massively increased presence of fossil fuel lobbyists at the UN’s climate talks. So I will continue my story and concentrate on the dawn of the new Phase 4.
Apparently, the two buddies from New Democracy were trying to use the panic and suffering from the climate catastrophe for political gains. But what about profits and technological solutions? As it was, only three years earlier, a “Medicane” (a rare Mediterranean hurricane) named Ianos had struck Greece, also in the month of September, and brought flooding, in particular to Thessaly. Of the 12.5 Million Euros allocated for flood defences and compensation to the most severely affected region – under the administration of Prefect Agorastos – as much as 60% had been misused and diverted, as recently reported by CNN Greece. A public investigation has been initiated.
To the dismay of Agorastos and Mitsotakis, Greek voters overwhelmingly rejected the duo’s ‘proposal’ in the final 2-candidate round of the prefectural elections by 60% to 40% and voted for an independent opposition candidate. The threats had not worked. The PM’s buddy had even come in first in the initial round with five candidates, winning well above 40% and just short of the required 43% for a win in round one.
Apparently the Greek voters were not quite ready for the fourth phase, because fear and panic had not yet deprived them of their natural political instinct. Or they are just a defiant bunch who like to say ‘no’ to authority, at least when they are being told what to do. But maybe the most important lesson for climate activism is to start planning for Phase 4, focus on the general state of corruption in all things related to climate policy, and take into account the potential of voters to reject climate profiteering, be it political or financial.
Bridge in Volos after the flooding. (Photos by the author.)
Postscript: It is 17 October, and heavy rain has returned to the Volos region for a third time. Forecasts are in the region of 50 mm and more. This is bad, because the soils are still saturated and practically all rainfall runs off, so even modest amounts can cause more flooding. A lot of river beds have been filled with silt and there is often no space for more water to flow under some bridges. Climate models almost universally predict a drying of the Mediterranean region, but more recent research by an MIT team has revealed this depends crucially on the way mountain ranges and the shape of the land sea boundary influence middle atmosphere flow. That means some parts may actually get wetter. There is also no evidence yet that the Mediterranean basin as a whole is drying. So much for the reliability and usefulness of climate predictions.