The images and stories from the fires still raging in Greece are harrowing, even to eyes and minds jaded by horrors and disasters. Irish attention is focused most on the fate of Zoe Holohan and Brian O'Callaghan-Westropp who should have been enjoying a time of very special happiness on their honeymoon. Instead, they found themselves caught up in the sudden firestorm that consumed the town of Mati.
Holohan is being treated in hospital for burns to her head and hands and, after a 24-hour period during which her husband was among the many people classified as missing, it was confirmed yesterday that he had died. The couple became separated as they attempted to escape the blaze.
Greek victims have been telling equally distressing stories. One man raced into the sea to save his baby but found his wife was no longer beside him. The discovery of groups of mortal victims huddled together and hugging each other in the face of death, has been compared – without hyperbole – to images from Pompeii. Each of these losses is immeasurably sad for the survivors and for the relatives of the deceased.
It shows no lack of respect for this grief – indeed it is an appropriate response to it – to reflect on the wider issues that are making such disasters more frequent and to do what we can to reverse this global trend. The evidence is now compelling that extreme weather-related events – wildfires, floods, hurricanes and storms, avalanches and droughts – are occurring across our world at a faster rate. The Economist reported last year that such disasters had more than trebled since 1980. And we can probably make up our own lists of calamities as recently as the last few weeks, from the impact of drought and heat on agriculture and the elderly at home, to soaring temperatures in Tokyo and unprecedented wildfires in Sweden's Arctic region.
An overwhelming majority of qualified scientists agree that the underlying source of this increase is accelerating climate change, caused by the massive greenhouse gases emitted by transport, industry, construction and agriculture. This is not to say that any single extreme weather event can be attributed directly to climate change. But it is to state, emphatically, that such events are much more likely because of it and will become ever more likely in future.
By coincidence, the statutory Climate Change Advisory Council issued its annual report yesterday. It warned bluntly that Ireland is "completely off course in addressing this challenge" and urged "immediate action" to reduce emissions. The time for platitudes and green-washing advertising campaigns is long over. Slowing down climate change is the century's defining issue. The consequences of failing are no longer in some fanciful future. They are right before our eyes. We must act now.