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Greece Proves the Right Will Never Fight the Fires

Greece's fires were lit by climate change, fought by underfunded public services, and met with distraction tactics by right-wing politicians. Britain's next disaster will be no different.

Firefighters from Romania spray water at a burned forest to prevent new fires in Avgaria village on Greece's Evia island, 10 August 2021. Credit: Milos Bicanski / Stringer / Getty

Wildfires are a normal part of Greece’s ecosystem. What’s happening this summer is not.

A record-breaking heatwave has incinerated over 250,000 acres of forest. The fires have displaced over 100,000 people, with many losing their homes and their livelihoods.

As this month’s IPCC report explains, global temperatures are going to continue to increase until at least the mid-century ‘under all emissions scenarios considered’. Every additional 0.5°C of global warming causes more heatwaves, more floods, more fires. In a decade, we may look back at what Greece has survived this summer as peanuts – and it’s only a matter of time until Britain faces something comparable.

The horror has forced the handmaidens of climate breakdown to change their tune, and fossil-fuel funding politicians are beginning to denounce global warming along with the rest of us. The difference is that they are still unwilling to acknowledge, let alone dismantle, the engine of the breakdown: to do so would threaten the economic system on which their power rests.

The worst consequences of this system have now been proved. Under the asphyxiating conditions of the EU debt repayment programme, the right-wing Greek government has continued forcing through a ruthless austerity scheme that has gutted Greece’s essential infrastructure, including the fire service. Last year, the government granted the forestry authorities just ten percent of their requested budget.

The fires have affected people who lived and worked in the forests the worst – communities with little wealth on which to fall back. The ruthless austerity of the Greek state will now force those who can to migrate to major cities in an economy that cannot absorb them. As we face more climate disasters, we can expect this pattern to continue, with poor adaptation by profit-driven governments leaving the poorest worst-hit.

Along with much of the Global North, an unholy alliance of neoliberal economics and far-right nationalism currently heads the Greek state. The centre-right New Democracy party ushers in otherwise hugely unpopular anti-worker legislation by focusing the blame for working people’s current poor situation on migrants.

Golden Dawn used to patrol working-class neighbourhoods in Athens, building support for their neo-fascist politics. Since the courts disbanded them, their ranks have swollen New Democracy, bringing many of their supporters—and many of their tactics—with them. This blend was evident in the government’s fire response: at one point, the minister for migration responded to calls to evacuate a smoke-choked detention centre by implying that the focus should instead be on ‘the local residents… who are suffering’.

But the crisis of the forest fires may have charred the popular appeal of these tactics, exposing the falsity of the idea that the government’s hatred for migrants comes from a place of concern for the rest of the Greek people. This is particularly poignant as up to 100,000 Greek people have now become internally displaced themselves.

As anti-migrant rhetoric rises, explicit climate denial is becoming less common. The right is changing its tactic to one of distraction and delay. Prime Minister Mitsotakis said that the wildfires show that the ‘climate crisis is here’ – but he does not mention the cause, nor act upon it. In fact, Mitsotakis’ government is pushing through unprecedented expansions in gas and oil, just as the IPCC warns that we cannot even afford to keep operating already-existing machinery. With one hand he denounces climate breakdown; the other pours fuel on the fire.

It does not help that Greece has a subservient press landscape. One of the first things that Mitsotakis did upon becoming Prime Minister was to take the state broadcaster into his control. Then, in 2020, the ruling party parcelled out Covid aid to media outlets in proportion to how positively they reported on its policies.

The fires may, in part, have broken through the Right’s media stranglehold: the climate disaster has forced criticism of austerity into the pages of the press, and across the country, news outlets have denounced the effects of cuts and privatisation and questioned why the country wasn’t better prepared. But this is as far as they got. The conversation remains stuck in the Right’s court, with few mentioning the cause of climate change itself: namely, the burning of fossil fuels.

The climate crisis is proving the points of convergence between various political systems worldwide – and the mutual interests of their ruling classes. As in Greece, an alliance of neoliberal economics and far-right nationalism runs Britain. We can expect our politicians to distract using racist dog-whistles and anti-migrant rhetoric, and our defences against climate disasters are likely to be just as pitiful, and threaten the poorest the most.

And as in Greece, our ruling political class is shifting its tactics from denial to delay. The Tories have stolen the language of the popular Green New Deal by slapping the label ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ on their murderously useless assortment of semi-reforms; with the other hand they are signing off new fossil fuel infrastructure off the coast of Scotland and in the south of England. And we are still fighting in a landscape in which major press outlets are controlled by a handful of billionaires, all of whom have plenty to gain from continuing to burn fossil fuels and from keeping any calls for a fairer political-economic system quiet.

That means the devastation in Greece that has wrecked thousands of lives is just a taste of what’s to come. We cannot rely on a neoliberal state to take any useful steps to soften the blow when it comes. But we can learn from our comrades in Greece, and prepare.

Greek people poured in from all over the country to support locals in fighting the fires. Armed with hoses and tree branches, they formed human chains and set out to beat back the flames from villages, sometimes with unbelievable success. The strength of such social support systems can provide relief in the short term, and develop a practical basis for challenging the capitalist status quo in the long. Britain’s weaker historical tradition of community support means standing networks like mutual aid groups and trade unions, as well as growing community unions like ACORN, are going to be vital when the next crisis strikes.

The fires have mobilised an enormous amount of energy in Greece. Offers of help overwhelmed volunteer fire protection organisations, pouring in at a much higher rate than the organisations could make use of. But a weak climate movement struggled to direct this energy towards the heart of the problem – and in Britain, where our opportunities for intervention into fossil fuel infrastructure are even richer, this is a risk we should prepare for and avoid by politicising our action every step of the way.

Climate crises are traumatic and debilitating. They also throw open opportunities for spurring action to dismantle the fossil fuel status quo. We can and must use the energy that events like these unleash to win major battles and build a new, liveable global economy: our lives depend on it.