By Dr. Robert Zaller, Professor Emeritus, Drexel University, Special to the Hellenic News of America
I remember a day in March of 1990, not in Athens but Philadelphia. The temperature that day reached ninety degrees.
March is a notoriously volatile month for weather, with wide climate swings as winter turns to spring. But I’d grown up in the Northeast, and no day I knew this early in the calendar had ever touched ninety. Seventy, sure. Eighty, on a fluke. But ninety was a day for July or August. I remember my thought: No way this is normal. Not even abnormal. This is a different world.
I wasn’t a prophet. I was simply being shaken awake. In 1896 a Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius, calculated that an increase in the quantity of the rare atmospheric element carbon dioxide could cause a cataclysmic rise in the earth’s temperature. He wasn’t exceptionally worried about this, but with the surge in industrialization, deforestation, and human population growth, by 1988 a NASA scientist, James Hansen, would testify to the U.S. Congress that the moment was already at hand.
Hansen’s conclusion was dismissed, especially by fossil fuel companies whose own scientists had already confirmed it. But soon a new field of researchers and investigators, the environmentalists, began to explore his arguments, and found them compelling not only on a theoretical but an evidentiary basis. The world was warming up, and though climate variations occurred naturally, the most realistic cause for the aggressive one science had begun to measure was man-made carbon pollution.
The most eloquent environmentalist was a Vermonter named Bill McKibben, who had written a book called eaarth. My computer, as I typed McKibben’s, tried to erase the second “a” McKibben had placed in it as a misspelling. Like most artificial intelligence, it hasn’t learned to recognize dark humor. McKibben was telling us that we were already living on a different planet, and that it wouldn’t be nearly as pleasant as the one we’d been given. I read his book, and his others, and realized that what I’d experienced that March day wasn’t accident but augur. Eaarth was our future, unless we did something about it fast.
This brings us to the summer of 2023. We have done very little about the climate crisis, debating without acting, and setting remote goals that few have seriously intended to meet. Climate change deniers, many funded by special interests, were epitomized by the American senator James Inhofe, who entered the halls of Congress holding a snowball to demonstrate that global warming was a hoax. On almost every level, including scientific ones, the speed and ferocity with which change was approaching were underestimated. McKibben would be one of the few who did not minimize the imminence of the threat. The organization he cofounded, 350.org, indicated the point at which the amount of carbon per million parts of dry air would trigger irreversible change in the world’s temperature. It has now well exceeded that, to constitute the highest concentration of carbon dioxide in fourteen million years. Two-thirds of that amount, on an on-going basis, results from human burning of fossil fuels.
What we are seeing this year are not only the highest average temperatures on record, but their direct consequences. Heat—and accompanying humidity—is only one of them. Fires, sometimes burning uncontrollably for months, are only the most obvious manifestation. These alternate with drought, which fuels them, but also with violent flooding—an unsurprising paradox, since hotter air can contain more moisture. At the same time, rising sea levels threaten coastal communities around the world, and already imperil island nations.
Extreme weather events have become commonplace, individually or in clusters. For much of the world, however, Greece appears to be the canary in the coal mine. Its popularity is as a tourist destination, but larger countries have more visitors. It is the idea of Greece as a place that combines historical sites, cultural splendor, architectural wonders, and natural vistas that concentrates the world’s attention. There are many great ruins that attest to the world’s heritage, but none that rivals that of the Parthenon as a symbol of the dignity, value, and fragility of human civilization. Other sites have deep and sacred associations. But more than any other place, Greece is the world’s pride.
The summer the world has endured, from Beijing to the Yukon, has been unprecedented. We were told it was coming, no doubt by mid-century if we did nothing to avert or at least prepare for it. Humans, or their hominid predecessors, were once a small and isolated mammalian species, and as some scientists have recently suggested, perhaps nearly as close to extinction at one point as the many species that in fact no longer exist on our account. We were perhaps a million in number ten or so thousand years ago, when the last Ice Age ended. Four hundred years ago we were a billion. Today we are eight billion. That is not a very large number; rats and ants are far more populous. But our rate of increase relative has been very large, and no little frightening. No creature can exceed the carrying capacity. Humans have extended theirs through the god we worship, technology. But there is an ultimate limit on a small planet whose biosphere is deeply interconnected, and whose disturbance can have very sudden effects. That is where we are now.
In Greece, the heat and fires that have gradually become the norm in summer were succeeded by successive catastrophes. From Rhodes to Evia to Corfu, from suburban Athens to Evros in the north, it was, as Greece’s Civil Protection Minister Vassilis Kikilias put it, “the worst summer for fires since records began” and the most destructive weather anywhere in Europe, with persistent winds and exceptionally low humidity driving the flames. Greece has never had an adequate fire-fighting force, and the rapid outbreaks overwhelmed it despite aid from the European Union, which had at last begun to mobilize to deal with Continent-wide devastation. But the fire waves of July and August, the result of converging climate conditions expected in summer, were succeeded by a quite unexpected phenomenon: sudden, flooding rains that washed through Volos and elsewhere in Thessaly, spreading the summer’s misery through one of the parts of the country that had been spared except for temperatures that ranged as high as 115 degrees Fahrenheit. I had seen unusual summer storms in places like Patras in recent years, but summer flooding, in my experience, was exceptionally rare. It was almost as though Nature were out of temper. Of course, it is no such thing. Rapid extremes of weather, in or out of season, are simply the physical and chemical consequences of sudden climate change, and what appear exceedingly small variations in carbon concentration can have profound results, because even small amounts of it can trap heat as no other element can.
What happened in Greece this summer I’d seen a few months earlier in California, where years of drought had turned green hills into desert landscape. The rains began again just after Christmas, welcome at first in the parched soil, but then unrelenting along the whole coast and deep inland, closing Yosemite, shearing off a piece of Big Sur, and bringing the dry Los Angeles riverbed roaringly to life. Much of California, of course, has a Mediterranean climate, and what I saw on Pacific shores was a preview of what was soon to come thousands of miles away. We can expect this from now on: the unexpected.
The world has been warned of this, but is still largely unprepared. Even in advanced countries such as the United States or Canada, in whose northern territories thousands of fires consumed an area the size of Greece this summer, manpower and equipment are sorely lacking. California, when fires come, must often resort to using its large prison population to fight them. Greece is not alone in needing outside aid in dealing with fires that seem to spring up as if of their own volition, with one succeeding another all but spontaneously.
The largest fire in Greece this summer, indeed the largest recorded in the history of the European Union, occurred in Evros, burning some 180,000 acres and killing a score of people. The government blamed it on arson; indeed, by late August some 160 people had been arrested, the majority for causing fires by neglect but 42 accused of willful action. Migrants have also been blamed by local vigilantes, who held thirteen people captive in Evros in what they described as a citizen’s arrest. Fires near Athens were also attributed to arsonists. The government has promised that vigorous enforcement will continue. This however has met with widespread skepticism, for arson has been tolerated for many years by bribed officials as a means of land clearance. Needless to say, in a country as susceptible to fire as Greece, this is treason to the land.
We have known long enough now that what we call “natural” disasters are at least in good part the product of human activity. Arson may seem the final act of irresponsibility, but it pales before the continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels for corporate profit, which has only just begun to be considered a crime in our courts. But the largest act of environmental devastation this year was wholly man-made, namely that in consequence of the destruction of the Nova Kakhova dam in Ukraine, almost certainly the work of Russia and, in terms of sheer magnitude, the worst calamity since the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl in 1986. On both sides of the Dnieper River, the resulting floods have destroyed the fertile soil that fed a substantial part of the world’s population, particularly in Africa.
The destruction of the Nova Kakhova dam was an act of war, with ruin as its objective. The effects of the tidal flooding of the Libyan port of Derna on September 11, where a 23-foot tsunami following a severe storm killed a minimum of 11,300 inhabitants and doubtless many more, was no less a result of war. Libya, whose oil wealth had made it the most prosperous state in North Africa, has been a failed state since 2011 when U.S.-led forces toppled its long-ruling dictator, Moammar al-Khadaffi, dividing the country between rival warlords. The dams designed to protect Derna had fallen into disrepair, as had warning systems and evacuation plans. Our responsibility for what happened to the city by wind and wave was indirect and unintended, but no less real.
The moral of these episodes is that we are complicit in the disasters that are now enveloping us. It is not simply a question of putting carbon in the air, but of conflict on the ground. We may create clean energy and learn to control climate, or at least its worst effects. But if we do not succeed in living with one another, we will not escape ourselves.