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Diarmaid Ferriter: Greece burns while the tourists fiddle with their phones

There are no shortage of ambitious targets being outlined in both Greece and Ireland to reduce carbon emissions, but stubborn national myopia also persists

The narcissists were out in full force, pouting and pirouetting all over the Acropolis in Athens on a balmy Sunday evening. It appeared it was all about getting the best shot; the ideal angle and backdrop, as opposed to peacefully absorbing the significance of the antiquity, as the international poseurs and their cameras sullied the place with their excessive vanity, soon to be displayed on social media platforms.

Maybe we international visitors should not have been there anyway given the costly indulgence of contemporary travel. Have we reached a point where we should be confronting our own compartmentalisation and denial about what we are collectively doing in thronging airports and tourist zones and seeing travel abroad as a right rather than a privilege with consequences?

Those who will pay the highest price for the global infernos are not us travellers from more temperate regions, but the locals whose homes and livelihoods hang in the balance

Greece burns while the tourists fiddle with their phones. We had travelled up the Athenian coast from Porto Germeno, where the combination of wind and heat led to forest fires that licked the edge of the village. An evacuation notice was received by SMS; it did not ultimately have to be activated as the wind changed direction, but it took 14 hours for fire fighters and army helicopters to quench the blazes. We had a bird’s-eye view of something that has become a persistent problem in Greece, to the point that assistance from Romania is required, but also something which will no longer be regarded as just the concern of regions in the Mediterranean basin. For the next few days, the smell of burning wood lingered in the hot air.

Those who will pay the highest price for the global infernos are not us travellers from more temperate regions, but the locals whose homes and livelihoods hang in the balance as the temperatures rise. As you would expect in Greece, there are many reminders of the inequalities, and protesters do not rest on Sundays.

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Below the Acropolis, the riot police were quietly donning protective equipment as a march organised by anarchists made its way up the hill. It was a small group with a loud message directed at tourists like us: “Welcome to Greece. A country where the manager of the main electricity company, 35 per cent under public control, is paid €360,000 a year, when the usual employee salary is €10,000 a year, where the cost of army defence in 2022 is €3.4 billion, where in 2021, 1,301,239 acres and many houses were totally destroyed by wildfires because of understaffing and underfinancing.”

These protests come on top of an unprecedented influx of tourists to Greece with close to 35 million people visiting this year. This is largely seen as a positive, given that tourism accounts for one quarter of Greece’s economic output and 20% of its jobs, but the ever-increasing numbers also have consequences for the environment and climate change, while inflation of 11.5 per cent last month and the ongoing energy crisis will hit particularly hard in a country with so many on low incomes.

Greece’s coastline is also vulnerable to rising sea levels, as is Ireland’s. In its early years, the Irish Tourist Board made much of promoting a visit to Ireland as a chance to experience an unspoilt, clean ruralism and “Life on Europe’s Edge”. That description reads more ominously now. As in Greece, more frequent droughts and floods beckon in Ireland, and how farmers will adapt and cultivate their land is a question that looms large in both countries.

Whipping boys

Are we serious about our green image? Farmers are convenient whipping boys, of course; sometimes their leaders do the sector few favours with their aggressive focus on profit margins, but it is true that the complexity of global food supply chains can be too easily overlooked. There is also a need to acknowledge proactive, climate-change-attuned farmers and their openness to solar energy, feed additives that cause cattle to emit less methane and the alteration of nitrogen fertilisers. The young scientists who exhibit each year in Dublin are also clearly engaged: in 2019, of the 550 projects shortlisted for the BT young scientist exhibition, 88 dealt with climate change and environmental issues; this year that figure was over 150.

The obscene profits of energy companies internationally have led to much-justified resentment

There are no shortage of ambitious targets being outlined in both Greece and Ireland to reduce carbon emissions, but stubborn national myopia also persists and the inflation, energy and inequality problems this winter are likely to dilute urgent questions about emissions and make delivering on targets not only difficult but politically damaging to those with the political maturity to see beyond their own electoral horizons.

The obscene profits of energy companies internationally have also led to much-justified resentment. As recently revealed, the ESB made an operating profit of €679 million for 2021 but the ESB-owned Electric Ireland is increasing its electricity and gas prices by 11.35 per cent and 31.9 per cent respectively. The political appetite to tackle that disparity seems lukewarm, unlike the temperature.