A Moment of Climate Truth

A satellite view of the earth Description automatically generated

Fires burning Peloponnesos and the island of Euboea, Greece, August 26, 2007. NASA.

A Cosmic Moment of Truth

On June 5, 2024, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres gave a talk at the Museum of Natural History in New York. He spoke on the desperate climate situation facing humanity. He focused on the 1.5 degrees Celsius global temperature above pre-industrial levels, which world leaders agreed, in Paris in 2015, to maintain in order to avoid planetary catastrophe.

“Why all this fuss about 1.5 degrees?” Guterres asked. “Because our planet is a mass of complex, connected systems.  And every fraction of a degree of global heating counts. The difference between 1.5 and two degrees could be extinction and survival for some small island states and coastal communities.

The difference between minimizing climate chaos or crossing dangerous tipping points… Scientists have alerted us that temperatures rising higher would likely mean: The collapse of the Greenland Ice Sheet and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet with catastrophic sea level rise; The destruction of tropical coral reef systems and the livelihoods of 300 million people; The collapse of the Labrador Sea Current that would further disrupt weather patterns in Europe; And widespread permafrost melt that would release devastating levels of methane, one of the most potent heat-trapping gasses. Even today, we’re pushing planetary boundaries to the brink – shattering global temperature records and reaping the whirlwind.

“And it is a travesty of climate justice that those least responsible for the crisis are hardest hit: the poorest people; the most vulnerable countries; Indigenous Peoples; women and girls. The richest one per cent emit as much as two-thirds of humanity. And extreme events turbocharged by climate chaos are piling up. Destroying lives, pummeling economies, and hammering health; Wrecking sustainable development; forcing people from their homes; and rocking the foundations of peace and security – as people are displaced and vital resources depleted.”

Heat wave scorches Athens

This dreadful moment of climate truth touched Athens, Greece, June 12-14, 2024. With millions of tourists swarming the country, and especially Athens with its gorgeous Parthenon and large museums, a scorching heat wave made landing on Athens. Authorities shut down schools and restricted the hours for visiting the Acropolis, even closing down the site from noon to five in the afternoon.

Modern Athens is not ancient Athens. Modern Athens was built in a harry. During WWII, the Germans almost wiped it out. With the exception of the Acropolis and a few archaeological sites and great museums and an admirable subway, the city is a jungle of concrete, narrow streets, too many cars and very few trees. The architecture of the city includes very few beautiful houses and buildings. Most construction came from emergencies. What could one do with the centuries-long legacy of the Turks? The effects of the Greek Revolution? The reign of German kings? Modernization meant box and honeybee hive houses and buildings. The Classical Greek style survived in museums and government buildings and the University of Athens. Add the wars and civil wars of the twentieth century, and modern Athens has few architectural connections to ancient Athens. The Christians wrecked ancient Athens. They obliterated the greatest number of temples and statues and art. They made the Parthenon a church. And when the Moslem Turks replaced the Christians, they turned the Christian Parthenon into a Mosque.

Climate change and its violence in the heat waves ought to be a warning to modern Athens. Either rebuild or you are doomed, you are on your way to oblivion. Plant trees everywhere. Get rid of most cars. Put rooftop solar panels everywhere. Houses, parking lots, all buildings. Expand the admirable efficiency of the Metro; add electric buses, and you give resiliency to the city. Of course, these modest measures are necessary for all cities, towns, and villages of the country.

Greece needs to become a solar nation. Manufacture solar technologies. Become an example. Revive the solar festivals of the ancient Greeks, especially in the island of Rhodes where the Sun god Helios was the benefactor and protector of the island.

Second, ditch industrialized agriculture and return to traditional ways of farming. That way you lessen greenhouse gas emissions by more than 30 percent. No more petrochemicals like pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and large tractors and other machines, all powered by petroleum. Such transformation would revive the villages, their food self-sufficiency, and rural culture, for millennia the backbone of Greek civilization.

Greece needs money to fight climate change. The money should come from Germany. Greece ought to demand that Germany pays up for its war crimes (genocidal and destructive policies during its occupation of the country, April 1941 to October 1944). Economists have figured out that the German debt to Greece is huge. In 2015, the Alexis Tsipras administration calculated Germany owed Greece 278.7 billion euros for war reparations and 10.3 billion euros for the forced loan. However, a more accurate assessment based on archival documents estimated the German debt to Greece was more than a trillion euros.

The US should stop interfering in this legitimate effort of righting Germany’s wrongs in Greece. If Germany gets away with murder in Greece, it is bound to repeat it. The United States should insist that Germany, finally, does the right thing. Pay the war reparations and debt it owns Greece.

Lessons of the climate moment of truth

Heat waves are not merely harming Athens. They are symptomatic of a cosmic tragedy: the climate giant in the room. Scientists have warned governments for decades that, finally, they must protect civilization and the planet from the anthropogenic crisis of overheating the planet for pure private profit for the one percent of billionaires. Guterres said this one percent of giant countries (America, China, India, the European Union, Russia, and the petroleum-producing countries) cause two-thirds of the planet’s heating. This means they are responsible for most of the harm of heat waves, droughts, tornadoes, flooding, forest fires, and ice melting.

Epilogue

Time is up for this moment of truth. Not merely should Greece rebuild itself with the power of ecology and Hellenic traditions to fight the harms of climate chaos, but civilized countries the world over should terminate fossil fuels immediately. They must put all their intelligence, money, and carbon-free technologies to prevent global temperature from exceeding the critical 1.5 degrees Celsius warming above the pre-industrial temperature. The United States knows that war is exacerbating the climate crisis. It should immediately stop the wars it is funding in Ukraine and Israel.

Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D., studied history and biology at the University of Illinois; earned his Ph.D. in Greek and European history at the University of Wisconsin; did postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard. He worked on Capitol Hill and the US EPA; taught at several universities and authored several books, including The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise.