Friday, February 23, 2024

The summer Greece discovered the climate crisis

In the run-up to Greece’s two parliamentary elections in May and June, the climate was of little or no concern to the political parties. Less than 0.5% of pre-election speeches of all the political leaders contained the terms “environment” or “climate change”. The subject was conspicuously absent even from the final TV debate between the leaders of the country’s most prominent parties.

This seems to go against the priorities of Greek citizens. According to the latest Eurobarometer survey, 94% of Greeks believe that “tackling climate change and environmental issues should be a priority to improve public health.” Another survey by Metron Analysis found that 29% of Greeks consider climate change the biggest issue facing the planet today, followed by the destruction of the natural environment (21%). However, when it comes to the biggest issues facing Greece, a different picture emerges: the cost of living tops the Greeks’ concerns, followed by the economy and only then by environmental destruction (9%). 

This might partly explain why Greece’s green parties are not flourishing. In the June elections, the Ecologist Greens received 21,188 votes, or 0.41%, while the Green & Purple alliance got 15,725 votes, or 0.3%

By contrast, the climate-sceptic, conspiracy-minded far-right party Niki (“Victory”) got 3.69% of the vote, gaining 10 seats in the Greek parliament. According to an article hosted on the party’s website “By targeting carbon dioxide [emissions], the theory of climate change has become the instrument for maintaining global power and through it, global wealth”. 

Shortly after the June election, Greece experienced disastrous wildfires that caused at least 28 deaths and burned more than 120,000 hectares of land. In September, the country’s central region of Thessaly was hit by devastating floods. At last, climate change made its appearance in the Greek political and media debate.

In their coverage of the environmental disasters, several Greek media outlets quoted English-language news reports. Popular government-friendly publications Efimerida and Newsbomb, referring to an article published in Deutsche Welle, titled, “Greece is at the forefront of climate change”. Newsbomb also quoted the BBC’s title “Floods in Greece: Prime Minister Mitsotakis warns of a very unequal battle with nature”.


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Ekathimerini, the English-language version of one of Greece’s main newspapers, quoted Mitsotakis telling CNN, “We did the best we could” in dealing with the catastrophic fires. “I am afraid that this is going to be the reality that areas like the Mediterranean will face in the future”, Mitsotakis added. These narratives have contributed to the depoliticisation of environmental disasters in Greece’s public debate. 

This is not a new trend. Back in 2018, former left-wing prime minister and Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras reacted to the floods in Mandra and the wildfires in Mati, in the capital’s Attica region, saying that Greece needs to update civil protection protocols because “climate change means we will face more frequent extreme weather events”. Then-opposition leader Mitsotakis replied ironically, “Mr Tsipras discovered today that climate change causes extreme weather events”. 

Polariasation and de-politicisation

The late Eleni Kapetanaki-Briassoulis, a geographer and professor at University of the Aegean, warned in 2021 that a fatalistic acceptance of the impacts of climate change shifts responsibility to distant causes, thereby sidelining “local (individual and collective) decisions and interventions on natural resources”.

“The dominant narrative of climate change, by sharpening the dimension or rather confusing the local/contextual with the global/remote, exonerates a portion of the official and unofficial culprits and redistributes the blame, spreading it over a larger population,” Kapetanakis-Briassoulis wrote.

However, the government went one step further, attacking the scientific community in the aftermath of last summer’s disasters. In September, when the National Observatory of Athens (NOA) reported a 195% increase in burnt areas despite a 52% reduction in the number of wildfires in 2023 compared to the annual average from 2002 to 2022, the government accused the Observatory of being politically motivated. Deputy Minister of Migration and Asylum Sofia Voultepsi spoke of a “propaganda of numbers”, while MP and former minister Stelios Petsas referred to “political games”, adding, “I don’t like its role”.

In early December, the government moved from words to deeds, announcing its intention to incorporate the NOA into the Ministry of Climate Crisis and Civil Protection. Researchers from various institutions oppose the change, citing concerns over the independence of the Observatory.

Political controversies aside, last summer’s environmental disasters brought the climate crisis to the fore, possibly marking a change in media attitudes. According to an analysis by the National Network for Climate Change CLIMPACT of over two thousand news items published online between 2009 and 2020, coverage of the climate crisis by the Greek media was lacking for several reasons.

First, journalists were not interested in detailed reporting about climate change, while 11% of the analysed content reproduced climate sceptical views. Second, although the consequences of climate change are already tangible in Greece and across the globe, 28% of the analysed articles exclusively referred to climate impacts expected at some unspecified time in the future. Only 17% of them mentioned the effects of climate change in the present.

Third, the articles focused primarily on national governments as responsible for addressing climate change and its impacts. Local and international actors (the EU, citizens, local authorities, environmental groups, and NGOs) were mentioned less frequently.

On a more positive note, the analysis found that one in two news articles included statements by experts. One in three contained statements by politicians, followed by members of civil society (14.5%), citizens (12%), and business representatives (9%).

As noted in the survey, the presence of scientists in the media can enhance the public’s understanding of the link between climate change, human activity, and natural disasters. Nevertheless, CLIMPACT stresses that online media discourse – which often reproduces offline discourse – needs to become more explanatory and to better convey the urgency for political action on climate change.

Alexandra Politaki, European Climate Pact ambassador in Greece, wrote in a recent article that the country lacks large-scale information and awareness-raising campaigns designed centrally and implemented over time by state bodies. Instead, people are exposed to “photographs of current or future disasters, […] fragmentary images that offer nothing more than impressions. Thus, key concepts […] such as adaptation, transition, climate neutrality, European Green Deal, and Just Transition Mechanism, are left without broad understanding”, argued Politaki.

Even the National Climate Law, adopted in May 2022 and aiming to reduce Greece’s greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels and net zero by 2050, did not receive the visibility it deserved. The approval of the law, which several environmental NGOs consider inadequate to meet the 1.5-degree target, followed a public consultation period of only two months between late 2021 and early 2022.

This insufficient public consultation “has been reflected in the Climate Law, as well as the lack of a comprehensive approach, depth, and political vision,” says Politaki.

Legal threats

Political polarisation and weak media coverage are not the only problems plaguing the public debate on climate in Greece. Indeed, as attention has grown around environmental issues, there has also been an increase in lawsuits against journalists by economic interests, including companies involved in the energy transition. Intimidatory legal action known as SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) has targeted journalists who uncover environmental damage or report on environmental concerns around large-scale mining and energy projects. 

Examples include a lawsuit filed by renewable energy company WRE HELLAS against Tasos Sarantis and the newspaper Efsyn for their reporting; one by a high-ranking executive of Hellas Gold against the online news outlet Altherthess and journalist Stavroula Poulimeni, who reported on environmental pollution connected to the company’s mining operations in Greece’s northern region of Halkidiki; and one by recycling company Antapodotiki Anakyklosi against journalist Thodoris Chondrogiannos for an article published in the independent news outlet Inside Story

Legal threats do not only concern journalists. ONEX shipyards targeted a local environmental NGO on the Cycladic island of Syros; a wind energy company sued 100 residents of the island of Tinos for mobilising against the installation of wind turbines; and another wind power company filed a lawsuit against nine legal entities on Andros, also in the Cyclades, after they had contested the construction of a road by the company. The list could go on.

“These SLAPPs do not only attempt to obstruct our duty to provide information independent of political and economic interests. It is also the right to receive information that is gradually being restricted’’, explains Stavroula Poulimeni. Fortunately, most local communities and many environmental organisations stood in solidarity with journalists and NGOs against the burgeoning industry of intimidatory lawsuits.

Yet silence prevailed in most of the country’s mainstream media. Here, for the climate and environment to be remembered, it took flooded towns, mud-covered villages and 1.7 million acres burnt in a single summer.

Since 2016, Greece has had a National Strategy for Climate Change Adaptation (NSCA), based on a 2011 study by the Bank of Greece. However, seven years after the strategy was developed, Greece has yet to approve the 13 Regional Climate Change Adaptation Plans (PESPACA) needed to implement the NSCA. Little seems to have changed even after last summer, and the media contains little reporting on the matter.

Better media independence is crucial if we are to provide the public with quality information on climate impacts and responses while holding politicians accountable. There is also an urgent need to “co-educate” scientists and journalists to help them better communicate the complexities of climate science and better explain the social and economic impacts of the crisis.

This article is part of a series dedicated to climate discourse in the European media. This project is organised by the Green European Foundation with the support of the European Parliament, and in collaboration with Voxeurop and the Green European Journal.

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