This summer’s apocalyptic scenes of a burning Mediterranean provided a vivid backdrop to yesterday’s IPPC report on climate change. I’m writing this, drenched in sweat, from my ancestral village in Corfu, where I’ve taken my family for August, not expecting to endure Greece’s worst heatwave in thirty-four years.
While Corfu has so far mercifully avoided the wildfires ravaging the rest of the country, Greece’s second largest island, Evia, has been burning for a full week. The desperate fight to stop the flames encroaching on Athens left Evia to be sacrificed for lack of resources. Now thousands of acres of pine forest have been reduced to ash, and thousands of people have been forced to abandon their homes as the wall of flames reaches right to the seashore, its villagers turned refugees in their own country.
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For the first time, this trip back to Greece has hit me with the realisation that climate change isn’t just a notional threat on an ever-shifting horizon: it’s already here, right now. The apocalypse has already arrived.
Wildfires are a perennial threat in the Mediterranean, but the changing climate is exacerbating their effect. It isn’t just that the summers are getting hotter: the winter rains that blanket the forest floor with a leafy undergrowth which dampens the threat of fire are getting weaker. Even farmers in Corfu, usually lashed by heavy rain for half the year, now complain that the seasons are now out of kilter, the fruit trees are dying unless irrigated and the water in the wells is running out. The result is that the forests of the northern Mediterranean — perhaps counterintuitively to Northern Europeans, nearly a third of Greece’s land area is made up of forest — have become tinderboxes, beyond the capacity of the state to manage.
As the IPPC report shows, Southern Europe is drying out while Northern Europe is getting wetter, leading to anomalous and devastating floods like those in Germany and even London this summer. In neighbouring Turkey, much of the country’s forested Aegean coast has been destroyed by fire, even as flash floods pummel the country’s normally dryer east. The Mediterranean climate, punctuated by dramatic changes of season so punctual that over the centuries they could be predicted almost to the day, has become erratic. Europe’s most hospitable and productive landscapes have now become now spiteful and vindictive.
How many decades of human habitation are left for the olive and lemon groves, pine forests and vineyards of the northern Mediterranean? It does not seem fanciful, now, to imagine climate refugees within Europe in the coming years, joining the desperate masses pressing on the continent from outside.
I turn forty at the end of this month. I was ten, in primary school, when both the Soviet Union collapsed and the realisation that global warming was a genuine threat to human civilisation achieved a mass understanding. I remember teachers instructing us about CFCs and the hole in the ozone layer, with propagandistic cartoons like Captain Planet aiming to create a new generation of responsible eco-warriors.
The thirty years since then have been entirely wasted. Instead of the dominant global power taking a meaningful lead on climate change, the world has been held hostage to the vagaries of American domestic politics, as one faction enters into fruitless international policy accords heralded with much fanfare and no effect, and the other withdraws from them with vindictive glee. Simply, we are ruled by unserious people who are unfit to rule. Meanwhile, Western countries such as Britain have achieved massive reductions of carbon emissions by shifting their industrial output to China, which now holds humanity’s fate in its hands and shows no desire to sacrifice its chance of hegemony by lowering its output.
Instead, locked in competition with each other, both the world’s two great global powers will expand their production and consumption, dooming the rest of us to an ever-faster collapse. If there was ever a time to construct a true global commons capable of confronting climate collapse it was then, during the 1990s’ brief End of History. That the trillions of dollars and the vast quantities of natural resources spent on extending and maintaining its imperial hegemony across the furthest corners of the earth would have been better spent on addressing the threat of climate change is an unarguable fact.
Even now the United States military alone emits more carbon than affluent European countries like Sweden or Norway. Every bomb dropped on an illiterate Afghan peasant, every carton of ice cream or air conditioning unit shipped to a desert in the middle of nowhere over the past twenty years of failed warfare represents a gigantic distraction from the threat facing us all, a colossal waste of resources and effort that surely has no parallel in all human history.
Instead of a concerted, World War-like effort to find technological solutions to the coming disaster, we were given an explosion of unnecessary consumer goods, whose assembly underwrote China’s rise to industrial dominance, which floods the earth with plastic crap — the profits of which have enriched a class of oligarchs, the richest people who have ever lived, who waste their fortunes on minutes-long consumer space flights while our home planet becomes unlivable.
Even aside from America’s 1%, the richest of the global rich, the entire world’s richest 1% — which, for clarity’s sake, accounts for only 20 million of America’s nearly 330 million population — is responsible for more than twice as much carbon emissions as the 3.1 billion people who make up the world’s poorest 50%. But not only that, they are responsible for more carbon emissions than the entire population of the EU, one of the richest and most industrialised societies in human history. How strange then, that Davos and the World Economic Forum insist we should all eat insects, own nothing and reduce our individual consumption of plastic straws or flights or car journeys while having nothing of note to say about this grotesque imbalance.
It’s not just the oligarchs to blame, but also their underlings who manufacture consent for the world they have created, and are rewarded with the scraps from their tables. Consider the recent, dispiriting discourse where American neoliberals like Matt Yglesias and Josh Barro have spent days crowing about their higher levels of consumption and possession of consumer appliances than us poor, benighted Europeans.
As an excellent recent book on the Green New Deal observed, the richest 10% of Americans are responsible for 25% of the country’s carbon emissions. The richest 10% of the global population — a group which certainly includes the millionaire Yglesias — is responsible for more than half the world’s carbon output.
Indeed, all it would take for global carbon emissions to drop by a third is for the same global 10% of the population to consume at the same level as the average European like you or me: no doubt an inconvenience for Yglesias and his ilk, but one which would save the lives of millions of people worldwide. Yet instead the world burns and our lifestyles deteriorate so these people can consume more and more. Imagine a world containing One Billion Americans, as Yglesias demands: Earth can’t even afford the amount we have.
By failing to address these obvious imbalances, the Green movement, too, has failed humanity. Instead of embracing technologies like nuclear power that would give humanity breathing space to arrest the coming disaster, the Greens sank into the obscurantism of ultra-liberal social causes and the generalised, solution-free comfort blanket of empty protest.
That the Fukushima crisis, whose even local effect on human health transpired to be massively overstated, allowed Western leaders like Merkel to shutter Germany’s nuclear power plants, as the German Greens demanded, and refire the country’s coal-fired power stations was a disaster of the highest order. Even Britain’s governing party, while flaunting its supposed green credentials ahead of the COP26 climate meeting, which will achieve nothing more than any other climate meeting has, is planning to expand fossil fuel production. No leader of any industrialised nation has shown themselves capable or even willing to face the challenge directly: we will all pay the price.
Given that the most important chance to arrest the coming disaster was wasted under this system, we must view the catastrophe now approaching us as a failure not just of the consumption model that spread unchallenged over the last few vital decades but also fundamentally as a failure of democracy. Indeed, perhaps the coming decades of fire and flood will be democracy’s terminal crisis.
Even as the ghost ideologies of the twentieth century still haunt the Western political imagination decades after their political deaths, new horrors surely await us. As states collapse in the Global South, the Global North will need to achieve full state mobilisation to mitigate the disaster heading towards it: who can say what forms of governance will be summoned into being by the failures of the past few decades? The purported global liberal order which has vastly accelerated this catastrophe will certainly not survive it.
On Sunday, I took my two sons to the hilltop village churchyard where my grandmother was buried this year, and where all her ancestors were buried since they fled the Ottoman invasion of Albania in the 15th century. As we lit an oil lamp and burned incense at our humble family grave plot, I looked around at the green sea of cypress and pine trees and thick olive groves, that were now a threat, a tinderbox-in-waiting like the forests burning on the mainland.
For how many years, I wondered, would my five and one-year old sons be able to live here safely? How many decades has the Mediterranean left to be liveable, for the trees to still bear fruit, before our wells run dry?
Greece is a poor country by European standards, even more so by that of the rich commentators defending the unsustainable status quo threatening its survival. Yet other countries, both in Europe like Greece and those in the Global South, are as rich in meaning to their inhabitants as my ancestral village is to me: how many millions will be forced to uproot themselves from everything they have ever known so that the world’s richest can enrich themselves even further, insulated from the consequences of their consumption?