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Sunday, Sept. 9, 2007

Extreme events fire up the Greek fringe


LONDON — "How are our children going to survive in a land that is dead?" asked a survivor of the wildfires that seared much of southern Greece during the last week of August.

Six thousand homes and 4 million olive trees burned, half the forests of Greece gone, and 64 people dead is a huge loss, and in the carbonized landscapes of the Peloponnese, it is hard to imagine that people will ever live there again.

But what nobody saw coming was the political fallout: This may be the first time that a government falls because of climate change.

When the center-right government of Costas Karamanlis called an early election last month after only three years in office, it had a comfortable lead in the opinion polls and was cruising toward certain victory. The fires changed all that, shaking people's trust in the competence not just of the government but of the established parties in general.

In the last published opinion polls (Greek law bans polls in the last two weeks before the Sept. 16 election), neither Karamanlis' New Democracy nor the center-left opposition party, PASOK, had even 40 percent of the vote.

The beneficiaries were the extreme-right Laos party, a normally marginal group preaching nationalism, hatred of immigrants and Orthodox Christianity (its posters urge all Greeks to unite as "one fist"), and the equally fringe party of the hard-left called Syriza. Neither party is represented in the present parliament, since they could not clear the legal threshold of 3 percent of the popular vote.

They are both very likely to be in the next parliament. And if the two major parties end up more or less tied, as seems probable, extremists of one sort or another will be able to extort a high political price in return for agreeing to support a coalition government.

Obviously, we can't just extrapolate from this single example and say that climate disasters lead to a polarization and radicalization of politics, but this is a phenomenon that warrants attention. After a week like the Greeks had, there was bound to be a political reaction, but does it mean anything for other places?

First of all, were these fires really caused by climate change? After all, there were fires of a similar scale in Greece about a century ago, and of course the land did turn green again after a few years. But uncontrollable "megafires" are ceasing to be once-in-a-century events. Another one burned about a quarter of the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands this summer.

There have been comparable megafires in the past few years in France, Portugal, Canada, Russia, Indonesia, South Africa and Brazil. In the United States, where a forest fire that burned more than 2,000 hectares was relatively rare 20 years ago, in the past decade there have been more than 200 megafires that burned at least 10 times that area. Six of the past 10 years have seen the previous U.S. record for the amount of land devastated by forest fires broken.

If this isn't climate change in full costume dress, it is certainly its first cousin. Temperatures in Greece this summer hit 46 C, unheard of even 10 years ago. In a Mediterranean climate where almost all the rain falls in the winter, this virtually guaranteed massive forest fires.

There is a prima facie case for seeing this as a manifestation of climate change — so what about the political reaction in Greece? It has been ugly on every side.

Karamanlis' government, having made few preparations for coping with massive fires despite the speed with which the problem has grown in recent years, was slow to respond to the crisis, and then tried to shift the blame for its failures by claiming that the fires were set by arsonists, saboteurs and terrorists. Its spokesmen rambled on about "asymmetrical terrorist threats" and an "organized plan" to destabilize the country, but those Greeks paranoid enough to believe such claptrap did not forgive the New Democrats for their sins. Instead, they promptly shifted their votes to the extremists who promised to "crack down hard" on something or other.

It hardly matters what they crack down on. Minorities and immigrants are usually favored by the far right, which will probably be the main beneficiary of these events in Greece, but it's pure symbolism, so the actual target doesn't matter. Any outsider or foreigner will do.

Now envisage a world where climate change is really hitting hard. The Mississippi delta, various Pacific islands and a good deal of Bangladesh are disappearing beneath the waves. The Amazon is burning, the monsoon has failed for the third successive year in the Indian sub-continent, and Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey are turning into deserts.

Will people and governments be sweetly reasonable, seeking collaborative ways to cope with a shared international disaster? Sure they will — just as soon as they have shot down all the flying pigs.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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