30th Sep 2023


Rhodes to ruin — fleeing the Greek inferno

  • What's playing out on Rhodes is a real-time process of climatic transition — and perhaps desertification — that we will see again and again (Photo: Sky News/Screengrab)
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My family and I left Rhodes on Saturday morning (22 July) — just as the island's forest fire escaped all control. But ominous warnings had been in the (35 degree celsius) air all week.

The apologetic manager at the astronomy café on a hilltop who couldn't serve water as it was being siphoned to fight the fires further south; the taxi driver from Apollona in a state of shock and fear after his home village was evacuated, and of course the water-carrying helicopters at Rhodes airport as we departed, taking off from runways as if in some Vietnam movie pastiche.

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Beyond counting our blessings — and our fears for those still trapped in the fire zone — we were left dazed and disoriented by the blazing spike which had punctured our tourist bubble. Last Monday we were in Lindos, marvelling at its panoramic acropolis and enjoying its beaches. Now it is the site of tourist evacuations. No relocation is possible though for the island's natural treasure trove.

With its dense, mixed, verdant interior, Rhodes is as rich in biodiversity as it is in fuel for fires. Endemic European fallow deer — popularised on the plinths of Rhodes' former colossus statue — roam its pine and cypress forests.

How many will be left when the embers have cooled?

Ten kilometres due north of the current inferno lies the valley of the butterflies, a 2km ravine lined by rare and medicinal oriental sweetgum trees that host millions of orange, white and brown Panaxia butterflies which swarm like clouds of Spanish flags at a fiesta. The destruction of this Natura 2000 sanctuary would spark another headline for a news cycle, and a loss that can never be made good.

As an environmental journalist in Brussels, this shouldn't surprise me. I am used to traveling to the frontlines of climate breakdown but now they are travelling to me, to all of us and, crazily, still catching us off guard. My daily twitter feed is full of climate cartographs showing the Mediteranean in flame red and ash brown hues. But the graphs' stitch-like plot lines are usually projected into an abstract future with years on axes too small to read.

What's playing out on Rhodes is a real-time process of climatic transition — and perhaps desertification — that we should see coming, again and again.

France, Spain and Ireland were all scorched by wildfires in the Spring, and the warning signs flashed crimson in June, when plumes from Canada's largest ever forest fire reached Europe. The smoke from 160 megatonnes of carbon emissions was literally on the water, and on the horizon.

Last month, the European Environment Agency reported that up to 145,000 people had been killed by extreme weather in Europe over the last 40 years, 85 percent of them by heatwaves.

A more detailed EU risk assessment is due out this autumn, possibly as early as October, and officials expect it to pull no punches. The need for strategic, funded, preventative measures in places like Rhodes is self-evident.

But the appetite for climate action is clearly waning at the European Parliament and within the Commission, where one official told me two weeks ago that an overwhelming backlash against the Green Deal was underway.

The next EU rotating presidency, Belgium, is expected to proactively push the climate adaptation agenda after floods that killed 180 people in that country and Germany in 2021.

But Spain, the current council president, faces intransigent domestic opposition from an agribusiness lobby that spurred the Popular Party to turn shrug at the draining of the Donana wetland into an electoral motif.

Fire-fighting cuts due to austerity

More importantly, whatever Brussels says, its actions will speak louder. Greece's former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, told me two years ago that in negotiations with 'the troika' in 2015, two commission officials threatened to effectively shut down the country's banking system if it re-hired 2,000 firefighters and doctors. An austerity-based decision in 2011 had axed 20 percent of the firefighters budget.

Varoufakis said the officials told him: "If you hire one more fire brigade man or woman, we will consider this casus belli." The commission denies this claim, which Varoufakis has since repeated.

Around 100 people died in blazes around Athens in 2018. The chief of Greece's firefighting federation said that 5,000 more firefighters were needed, after yet another deadly fire season in 2021,

The increased fires are in line with IPCC predictions and the lackadaisical response — to the extent that the UK government seems more keen to reduce its climate commitments than its citizens' exposure to fire risk in Rhodes — underlines how package tourists themselves may become sacrificial lambs on the altar of our fossil fuel economy. Ironically, the increased visibility of their suffering could deal a savage blow to future July/August bookings in the Med that the UK government presumably wishes to prevent.

If governments will not curb emissions and protect their citizens, sadly, that may be one of the few positives to come out of this latest climate tragedy.

Author bio

Arthur Neslen writes about the environment for the Guardian, Open Democracy, Equal Times and others. He was formerly the Guardian's European environment correspondent.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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