Photo Evia Aug 2019, Greece @CopernicusEMS
Those dancing on the volcano
by Charlotte Huch* & Alexa Agoropoulos**
In the face of annual extreme climate events, the desolate dimensions of government mismanagement and everyday living conditions in Greece are brought to the fore. A conference held in Athens late this summer on the topic of urban climate resilience promised to discuss the particular challenges of living in cities in the face of multiple crises – only to prove once again that efforts to promote resilience primarily conceal strategies of commercialization. It is therefore imperative that the international left, especially organizations such as the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, see the extremely precarious and dangerous realities of life in Greece, point them out, and support in building intersectional climate justice movements.
After another summer of extreme weather events and forest fires, Greece is facing a particularly harsh winter in sight of rising energy prices, cutbacks and power outages. In September, while the annual fires are still being fought and the subsequent rainfall is being provisionally pushed out, and the inhabitants of the Greek capital are already imagining the weeks ahead without sufficient heating and electricity, municipal representatives, politicians, NGOs, entrepreneurs, scientists and banks met in Athens on the occasion of the 9th European Urban Resilience Forum. Organized by the ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability) network and the EU’s European Environment Agency, and supported by Google, the European Investment Bank and the City of Athens, among others, the two-day meeting focused on “strategies, initiatives and measures for adapting to climate change, coping with disasters and building urban resilience”.
The term resilience refers to the general ability to cope with emerging uncertainties and risks and is usually used as an umbrella term for any, mostly institutional, measures to increase this ability to adapt and resist. In the absence of a political, system-critical perspective, resilience efforts run at risk of separating humanitarian crises, poverty and other forms of structural violence as external factors of insecurity from their institutional causes and getting stuck in the narrow thinking of neoliberal crisis management. A critical, sometimes revolutionary potential of resilience, on the other hand, could possibly be activated if the genuinely democratic core of a society, the citizens, succeeded in providing resistance and alternatives to the authoritarian tendencies of state institutions in times of crisis through cooperative, social action.
The fact that Athens was chosen to host such a resilience forum could have been emblematic given the escalating climate crisis in and around the city: The lockdown summer of 2021 brought three consecutive heat waves and hundreds of wildfires that destroyed a total of 1,300,000 acres of forest and deprived more than 100,000 people of their livelihoods and homes. However, these extreme events are by no means isolated incidents. Greece has been experiencing forest fires in the summer for many years and Athens is already considered one of the hottest European cities. Forecasts show that extreme temperatures in Athens will become more frequent and long-lasting in the coming years. This will make life in the city particularly dangerous. Here, many people live together in densely populated spaces, there is a lack of green areas; buildings and infrastructures absorb the heat instead of keeping it out. Hospitalization rates and deaths increase, especially among the elderly and sick and all those who cannot adequately protect themselves from heat.
LIFE IN CHRONIC CRISIS
For several years now, the rest of the world has been persuaded that Greece has finally succeeded in its transformation after many years of crisis. Large, international companies, such as Microsoft, open up offices in Athens, new visa processes are being enacted for so-called digital nomads, and record-breaking tourist flows swarm through the city and the entire country every year. For the Greek population, on the other hand, not much actually improved. In fact, severely marked by the past fourteen years of austerity, state crises, corruption scandals and increasing state repressions, life in Athens has become a chronic, humanitarian crisis.
Homelessness is widespread, many houses are abandoned, temporary shelters are popping up, entire streets and neighborhoods seem forgotten, neglected, discarded. Real estate speculation and the massively expanding tourism industry have caused rents to rise dramatically, ultimately forcing people to leave their homes. A significant proportion of the population relies on support services run by civil society organizations as food and electricity have become too expensive. In addition, Greece still has the highest unemployment rate in the OECD region at 11.4% (overall, seasonally adjusted) and 28.6% (youth, seasonally adjusted). 13.5% of working-age people in Greece live on less than 50% of the median disposable income, 19.6% live below the poverty line, and 27.5% are at risk of poverty and social exclusion, rising to 31.5% for those under the age of 18.
Ever since the rightwing government under Kyriakos Mitsotakis took office in 2019, an authoritarian trend has been unfolding: Illegal, human rights-violating push back practices by the EU have increased dramatically at Greece’s borders, as has the repressive targeting of political activity in neighborhoods and universities. Spendings on social services are being cut while police funding increases, alongside a rise of incidents of police violence. Media outlets are increasingly pressured to not question the government line, as financial grants preferentially go to those who do not report critically. Recently, critical reporting was even criminalized under the guise of “fake news”. Investigative research has also revealed that both journalists and opposition politicians have been wiretapped using spyware. In general, corruption continues to be widespread, with Greece scoring 58/100 in Transparency International’s ranking, making it one of the European countries with the highest corruption scores.
However, this devastating inventory was by no means the reason for bringing the Resilience Conference to Athens. On the contrary, the crisis-ridden realities of daily life in Athens were almost completely disregarded at the Urban Resilience Forum. Athens is a city in transformation, a “crisis veteran” moving forward at great pace, it is said instead. The intention of the event is to promote cooperation between the various actors present and thus to further expand the network around climate resilience. In short, this is the place to establish a direct line to the key players, namely political decision-makers and banks. It’s about money and access.
But let’s take it one step at a time. The conference was opened by Holger Robrecht, ICLEI’s German Deputy Regional Director for Sustainable Resources, Climate and Resilience. ICLEI describes itself as “the world’s leading network of local and regional governments committed to sustainable development”. What is striking is its close ties to governance structures – local and regional governments as members of the network, as well as the European Union, banking institutions like the European Investment Bank, and tech giants like Google. As the main organizer, ICLEI, usually in the person of Holger Robrecht, guides through the two-day event. He performs his job as ICLEI representative with utmost care: he charmingly alternates between flattering the starlets of the Athenian political scene and promoting the matching interests of those present in the room. It is therefore not surprising that the so-called marketplace for extensive networking seems to be the actual heart of the conference.
Enter Kostas Bakoyannis, Mayor of Athens, grandson to the former Prime Minister of Greece, Konstantinos Mitsotakis, nephew to the current Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and son to the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, former Minister of Culture and former Mayor of Athens, Theodora Bakoyanni, née Mitsotakis. He swings a pathetic speech, telling of grandmothers suffering from the extreme temperatures and the lack of green spaces that neighborhoods desperately need. As a well-practiced rhetorician, he ends his speech with the inevitable wind of change, the fortified view into the future: “Athens is bouncing forward. You will experience a city that is transitioning” (Kostas Bakoyannis, own recording, Urban Resilience Forum Sept. 14, 2022). Immediately afterwards, the mayor disappears from the conference, and with him not only other politicians, who also leave for their next appointments as soon as possible, but also the problem-oriented focus, which had been in the room for a short time – but really only for a few minutes. From now on, the direction for the following two days is absolutely clear: It is about the prosperous future, about the seemingly endless possibilities that will arise for those present and their project plans in light of the flourishing cooperation between politics, NGOs and financial institutions. A match made in heaven.
These possibilities are painted in dazzling colors and wrapped into new, ever-larger projects. More trees, more green spaces, new so-called “green corridors,” more research, more data-driven urban planning, improved early warning systems for extreme weather events, energy-efficient building renovation, new metro lines, new shopping centers with integrated green spaces. However, the bases, the problem analyses, for these often extremely costly projects are not provided. Although many other people from equally affected cities in Europe were present in addition to municipal representatives and project managers from Athens, there was no honest exchange about the already existing sufferings, worries and fears of everyday urban life in times of climate crisis. It was almost as if an agreement had been made prior to the event that only positive, hopeful prospects would be discussed and not a single word about existing problems and challenges. This means that the people and the realities of their lives, which are supposedly the driving forces behind climate resilience efforts, are excluded from the discussion and action spaces. Protecting the most vulnerable remains an empty promise. It’s all about money.
DOING BUSINESS WITH LIFE
Between all the hustle and bustle over the city’s political stars, such as Chief Heat Officer Eleni Myrivili and Vice Mayor for Urban and Buildings Infrastructure and City Planning Vasileios Foivos Axiotis, and the eager exchange of business cards and twitter handles, the grotesque performative character of the event and its severe danger finally becomes apparent. Costly projects are extensively staged and framed with words that climate resilience practitioners and their donors will gladly hear; large figures and equally large visions are floating around. In view of the escalating climate crisis and notoriously tight public funds, however, the initial results of the highly praised projects appear to be extremely limited. So far, among others, only five buildings have been renovated and software has been developed that can calculate and visualize how traffic reductions affect noise, temperature and air pollution. Athens has already received a 55 million euro loan from the European Investment Bank to invest in urban infrastructure projects like these. Five million euros have been made available under the European Investment Bank’s Natural Capital Financing Facility Fund (NCFF) to improve green and water infrastructure.
It became perfectly clear that one of the main goals is the profitable business with data, as a question posed by a member of the audience about democratic application possibilities of the software was answered as follows: “There is a great potentiality to start exploiting the fact that citizens go around the city in real time” (Ilia Christantoni, own recording, Urban Resilience Forum 15.09.2022). People nod in agreement, no one is surprised or outraged. In the closing plenary session, the spectacle finally culminates. Summing up, Holger Robrecht repeated several times: “We are too big to fail” (own recording, Urban Resilience Forum 15.09.2022). Explicitly referencing to this famous phrase rooted in the global financial crisis of 2007, indicating that certain financial actors have reached a scale of complexity and size that it seems impossible for government agencies not to rescue them in the event of financial distress, reveals egocentricity and megalomania in the practitioners’ self-perception. Clearly, they see themselves as the good guys, receiving such a great amount of support and approval in the name of the good cause that it seems appropriate to fantasize unrestrainedly about anti-democratic ideas. We can do whatever we want and no one can stop us.
This year’s Urban Resilience Forum demonstrated that climate resilience has become a commercial flagship in the business between NGOs, politicians and banks. The complexity of the interwoven aspects of the crisis, the life-threatening impacts on people’s lives and the role of state institutions are sidelined or even kept in the dark, while economic interests are prioritized and linked to anti-democratic visions. In Athens, but also in the context of the 27th UN Climate Change Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, it is therefore obvious: Those in power are dancing on the volcano – or rather on flooded streets and swamped houses, over blazing forests and burning fields, in the face of suffering, dying people.
Needless to say that all of this does not leave a politically organized civil society unaffected. For the climate summit in Egypt, an extremely restrictive set of rules for protests and demonstrations was presented; leading up to the event, already hundreds of people have been arrested in the context of demonstrations and activities on social media, climate organizations have been prevented from entering the country or got massively restricted in their work, and military security plans unsettle civil society life. In Athens, too, the repressive, authoritarian climate and ever-worsening living conditions impact political organizing, with the result that, aside from occasional demonstrations and rallies and local environmental groups, there is no major climate justice movement. In order to prevent another Urban Resilience Forum and to better link struggles around health, work, housing and social security – the struggles for life – in the future, an intersectional climate movement in Greece, and specifically in Athens, that would work together with existing structures of the radical left and solidarity (self-)organizations and thus put people and their needs at the center, should be built and strengthened.
*Charlotte is a PhD researcher at the cluster of excellence “Climate, Climatic Change and Society” at Hamburg University. Her research focuses on collective practices emerging in the fact of climate insecurities and injustices within urban and activist communities.
**Alexa is a graduate student of international criminology and research assistant at at the cluster of excellence “Climate, Climatic Change and Society” at Hamburg University. Her research focuses on digital policing and authoritarian sentiments.