Opinion

Fionnuala O Connor: Denial and distance rival smoke and ash as Europe burns

The gutted remains of cars lie on a road after a forest fire on the island of Rhodes, Greece. Some 19,000 people have been evacuated as wildfires continued burning for a sixth day on three fronts
The gutted remains of cars lie on a road after a forest fire on the island of Rhodes, Greece. Some 19,000 people have been evacuated as wildfires continued burning for a sixth day on three fronts The gutted remains of cars lie on a road after a forest fire on the island of Rhodes, Greece. Some 19,000 people have been evacuated as wildfires continued burning for a sixth day on three fronts

The baddies are bad, the comparatively good lack all conviction. Behaviour that stays the same at least provides stability, a moral to make you laugh a villain’s laugh.

Leading British Conservatives responded to last week’s by-elections with more hostility towards green policies, including their own. And British Labour’s flailing leaders yet again wobbled away from clear messages for fear of sounding radical. All this while the earth burns.

Refugees fleeing unbearable heat as well as war and cruel regimes have poured for years out of Africa and Asia, fleeing north into what we here on its western fringe know as our mainland, continental Europe. Now Europe is burning in front of our eyes.

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A crisis, wouldn’t you say? Usual behaviour has to change? The front of the rampageously right-wing Sunday Telegraph had a smirking Michael Gove, smartest leading Tory and therefore the most culpable, announcing ‘Net zero can’t become a crusade’.

A UN emergency conference in London eight years ago prescribed a last-ditch attempt to bring temperature increase due to climate change down to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

Last week, foreboding about that 1.5C target came from climatologists rubbished until recently for their pessimism but now generally acclaimed. (Though not by ultras on the right, and the cunning like Gove who mostly stays in the wings as his party implodes.)

Then Rishi Sunak’s shrunken crew narrowly retained Boris Johnson’s old seat – having played up the likely cost to suburban drivers of Labour’s London mayor Sadiq Khan’s proposed expansion of ‘Ulez’.

Originally drafted by none other than then-mayor Johnson to tackle the city’s polluted air, the ‘ultra-low emission zone’ Khan expanded to most inner boroughs will next month, he proposes, cover all of Greater London. Where public transport is weaker and more people have cars, many of them exempt. But as in the city proper, the plan is that older and more polluting vehicles should pay a daily charge.

When the Tory by-election campaign went to town on it, so to speak, Keir Starmer criticised Khan. Whose critics may have a point: the expansion could have been presented with more clarity, reassurance, emphasis on exemptions.

But when all the signs are that climate breakdown is not just in crisis but accelerating, surely special measures are called for? Instead, ahead of the general election, Sunak apparently now plans to lure out the elderly and other Conservatives who didn’t vote last week with more right-pleasing policy.

On ‘migrants, trans rights and crime’, with an option to continue backing away from what had almost amounted to bi-partisan if feeble recognition of disastrous, man-made global warming. Starmer falling into line was not a pretty sight. Nervous imagining of a comparatively progressive British government after the election has become even shakier.

The best hope is new-found courage born of terror as skies change colours. Perhaps. Understatement alert: people in search of holiday sun are stubborn.

Wildfires and record heatwaves have stunned Greece for weeks, tourists with stunned expressions shooed away from the Acropolis, tourism-dependent Greece now closing its biggest attractions at midday.

The sky turned orange ‘about lunchtime’, a woman told the BBC, as holidaying families on Rhodes were evacuated first to beaches and then by sea. A man said ash began falling on the pizza he was eating; he still sounded bewildered that a beach lunch-place had burned down overnight.

"We’re off for some sun, this summer is woeful" say people from still temperate Ireland. Denial, and distance, rival smoke and ash? People continue to crowd on to planes and head for places hotter than home. Burning beaches do not automatically mean refunds; governments are slow to confront the travel industry and advise against travel.

"Earth is in uncharted waters" said one attempt to describe this month’s surge in climate terror. It also noted that some seas are still heating. Let’s ‘call out’ the bad, be good to each other, and stay at home.