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Greek Tragedy: The battle to cool Athens

As the mercury climbs in the Greek capital and forest fires spark into life again, Athens’ chief heat officer worries about what summer will bring but tempers her fear with dreams of change in one of the world’s oldest named cities

A local resident walks as a wildfire rages near the village of Gouves, on Euboea island, second largest Greek island, on August 8, 2021. - Hundreds of firefighters battled a blaze on the outskirts of Athens as several fires raged in Greece. Photo: ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP via Getty Images

Half-way through our Zoom interview, Eleni Myrivili takes out a blue-brown-and-white folding fan and starts vigorously swishing it back and forth in front of her face. It’s 35 degrees in Athens and even for a self-confessed heat lover, it’s starting to feel a little uncomfortable. 

But it’s not her personal discomfort that most concerns Myrivili, Athens’ chief heat officer and the first, and so far only, person to hold such a job in Europe. Memories of the forest fires that licked around the edges of the city just weeks after she took up her new post last summer are fresh in her mind – she describes the scenes then as “dystopian” – and she is worried about a recurrence. This, more than the sweltering muggy air, is what’s keeping her up at night.  

“I’m scared of a long heatwave, a long dry spell with very high temperatures because that ignites the fires much easier and it also creates problems for my city that have to do with economics. If we keep having these heatwaves in July and August, how is that going to affect the main source of income and wealth, which is tourism?” she tells me.

“I’m worried about what the rising heat means for poor people who cannot afford cooling; what it means for the trees that are either burning or not able to establish themselves; what it means for biodiversity in general and how we are weakening our capacity to have a healthier environment and city to live in.”

Athens, one of the world’s oldest named cities with a recorded history stretching back around 3,400 years, is today a poster child for the effects of climate change in an urban area. One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, with nearly 4 million inhabitants, it is becoming too hot, too dry and, for some people, too dangerous during the summer. And it has few financial resources to help it cope after the economic crisis that followed the 2008 global crash and the pandemic. 

Last summer, during Greece’s worst heatwave in 30 years, wildfires destroyed around 300,000 acres of forest and bushland. Apocalyptic images of orange skies, burning villages and people taking shelter on beaches as flames crept closer horrified Europeans. The prime minister called it the “greatest ecological disaster in decades”.

And probably, not a one-off. Already, Romanian and Bulgarian firefighters have arrived in Greece as part of a 200-strong European force to provide backup in case of a repeat. And the deadly fire season has already started – in June, a blaze on Greece’s second-largest island, Evia, raged out of control and a village was evacuated while a fire also broke out in the Schisto Korydallou suburb of Athens in June. 

Myrivili’s job –  funded by the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Resilience Center of the Atlantic Council, a United States-based think tank, and supported by Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance (EHRA) – is to help Athens and its people adapt to the extreme weather caused by temperatures that now regularly exceed 40C during the summer months. She is also supposed to spread her expertise to other European cities – because Greece is not alone. 

This summer, Italy is experiencing its worst drought in 70 years with fears of serious shortages of water for drinking and irrigation in the north of the country. Levels in the river Po have sunk so low that decades-old shipwrecks are resurfacing.  In a dramatic demonstration of what higher temperatures mean, a huge chunk of ice snapped off a glacier on the Marmolada peak in the Dolomites in early July, triggering an avalanche that killed at least 11 people.

Portugal declared an eight-day state of emergency in early July with temperatures predicted to rise as high as 43C, causing a heightened risk of wildfires. Days later thousands of firefighters and dozens of aircraft were locked in battle against 125 fires burning across the country. Spain, France, Romania and others are also suffering drought conditions and fires as Europe struggles to adapt to a new climate reality. 

While the earth’s surface was nearly 1.2C warmer than pre-industrial levels last year, Europe’s temperature rise was more than 2 degrees, according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S). A new continent-wide record was set in Sicily last year when temperatures hit 48.8C.

A study for the EU found that even if global warming is capped at 1.5 degrees Celsius — which is unlikely given current commitments on cutting greenhouse gas emissions — hot weather is projected to kill about 30,000 Europeans a year, compared to around 3,000 today. If temperatures rise by 3C that would be 90,000 deaths from extreme heat per year by 2100.

And that’s without looking at extreme weather in the form of floods, like those that killed hundreds of people in Germany and Belgium last summer.

Myrivili, who served as Athens’ deputy mayor for urban nature and climate resilience from 2014-2019, grew up in Athens but says the heat is different now and lasts for longer – that’s true across the world too as heatwaves start earlier, last longer and are more severe. 

“I’m very worried about what the next few decades will be like,” says Myrivili. “I like heat but I find it kind of unbearable when the heat falls over the city and it’s really oppressive, a very oppressive state of being.” 

Cities are warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe, partly because of the heat-trapping materials found in these urban heat islands, so called because they magnify heat impacts compared to the countryside where there is more vegetation.

“Glass, cement, concrete, steel: all of these attract heat and they store it and usually they radiate it in the night, which is the dangerous part because that’s when the body needs to rest and to lower its temperature, and if it is not able to do that it can be really dangerous,” Myrivili says. The most vulnerable include older people and young children – who have more difficulty regulating their body temperature – as well as pregnant and breastfeeding women, the disabled and those who must work in hot conditions. Extreme temperatures can also mean water and power shortages, crop failures and more accidents at work due to people sleeping badly. 

And then, of course, there are the fires. According to a recent paper by Dr. Matthew Jones, of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, the fire season in the European Mediterranean has been increasing in length and intensity – in 1979, the Mediterranean fire season was 23 days long on average. By 2019, this had more than doubled to 52 days in the year. 

Climate change “is loading the dice in favour of more extreme fires” across the region,” said Jones. The European Forest Fire Information System found that in 16 of 21 countries for which it has available data, the number of fires experienced this year is already in excess of the annual average. For instance, Austria, Hungary and Slovakia have all already recorded more than 20 times the average number of fires, while in Romania, the yearly average has already been exceeded 15 times, with 734 fires and counting. 

Although there has been a downward trend in burnt areas globally, “there’s no guarantee that the situation will stay the same,” says Jones. “Rather, the impacts of climate change could be felt more strongly in future as we see more substantial shifts to fire weather extremes”. 

For Myrivili, it all starts with heat. She divides her job into three parts – she needs to raise awareness, prepare people and the city for higher temperatures, and also work on redesign. She has already presided over the creation of a categorization system for heatwaves to allow cities to be better prepared. The system, which attempts to impose a kind of order on a phenomenon long viewed as idiosyncratic, was drawn up by scientists in the Arsht-Rockefeller Resilience Center and is also being used in Spain’s Seville and four cities in the United States. 

The scientists used data on temperatures, atmospheric pressure, mortality, humidity, and other parameters to create an algorithm allowing them to categorize heatwaves – as a one, two or three. The categorization is part of a series of policies designed to help people prepare more effectively for the increasingly common heatwaves. 

“We have put in an early warning system where we have different messaging, especially for the most vulnerable populations,” Myrivili says. “We have also created a hotline where people can find what to do and we’ve been working very closely with the International Federation of the Red Cross.”

Myrivili’s team have also developed an app that allows users to assess their personalised risk from heat, based on geographical location, health data, age, gender and other characteristics. It also features a map to show the nearest cool space and a function to show the coolest routes from Point A to Point B. Milan and Rotterdam are also using similar apps. 

Collaboration with other cities is part of Myrivili’s job and she has  counterparts in Miami in Florida, Freetown in Sierra Leone, Santiago de Chile, Monterrey in Mexico and Melbourne in Australia. She has also collaborated  with officials from New York and the Australian Red Cross on training. 

“It’s good to have chief heat officers because they can advocate and bring together the different aspects of the city to create a more resilient environment … because as someone said recently, we can’t air condition our way out of this problem,” she said. 

To slow global warming, greenhouse gases must be cut and particularly in cities, which are responsible for 70% of these gases worldwide. The challenge is to do this while adapting to the already rising temperatures and redesigning urban areas to have more porous surfaces, more nature, more water. This is a particular challenge in built-up, densely populated Athens. 

“It has tonnes of cement and asphalt and the green areas are very unequally distributed,” Myrivili says. “We have already mapped out where the hottest neighbourhoods are and we need to make radical changes there. Another problem is that most of the public spaces have been dedicated to cars, either moving or parked, and this is something that really has to shift, because we have to get cars out of Athens.”

The issue of social equity is also important to Myrvili, who notes that poorer people will not be able to afford to turn their air conditioning on, even if they have it, as fuel and electricity prices continue to spike because of the war in Ukraine. And then one gets sucked into the vicious circle of more air conditioning globally creating more emissions, and therefore higher temperatures. 

“We are expecting an enormous rise in the number of air conditioners in the next decades and I’m worried that when we talk about specific targets for mitigation of emissions we’re not really thinking about the demand for energy and how much it’s going to spike because of rising demand for air conditioning,” she says, 

“We have to quickly think up innovative ways to sustainably cool cities … This is why it’s a race and it’s not easy but already cities are starting to move that way so we are not at point zero. Already we see a lot of cities that are using nature-based solutions, and green and blue infrastructure, and creating cooler corridors that move air around and use water more …  Cities are starting but it’s the beginning and we have to move faster and create more radical experiments of how to bring nature into cities, like moving away from tree lines and tree-lined streets and (instead) digging out streets and creating real forests with soil that is able to support the biodiversity we need in the soil.” 

This kind of radical change, though, requires sustained public pressure and while the concern is there, it is not yet translating into concrete action. Myrivili cites a recent survey carried out in Athens that showed 63% of those surveyed were worried that extreme heat was going to negatively affect their welfare and personal lives. And while there have been positive changes – a ministry of climate crisis and civil protection was created as a result of last summer’s fires – she says people must start demanding more. 

“People are very conscious of (the danger) but they don’t translate that yet into a demand towards the politicians. I don’t hear people saying, ‘you guys, have to do something about this because we are dying here, we are losing our jobs ’. So politicians don’t feel the need to address these things because they don’t get a sense from the people that this is something they will appreciate.”

All these issues can seem overwhelming, Myrivili admits, but she cannot indulge in fatalism. 

“Generally I’m an optimist; I’ll take any small incremental change and I’ll push for more urgent and dramatic ones but I don’t think we can just say this is too big for us to deal with. We have to chip, chip away at it ….if that’s all we can do for now, that’s what we’re going to do … we don’t have the luxury to stop and be overwhelmed by the problem.”

Because Athens will have to change. Radically. And it’s not the only city facing a full-scale reimagining for a hotter world. 

“We need a whole new paradigm of design for our cities. And it shouldn’t be architects or urban planners leading this but landscape architects … This whole thing is about how we can make cities that are more fun and delightful to be in so there’s a positive aspect … Everything we can do to make cities less hot is perfectly linked to how we make cities more fun and more delightful to live in.” 

Additional reporting was provided by Alex McDonald

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