Greek climate minister fights fires — and the system

EuroActiv Politico News

ATHENS — With heat waves and devastating wildfires on the rise, Greece’s climate crisis minister knew the gig would be an “explosive mixture” — but a bigger surprise has been the push back from Greek bureaucracy.

Christos Stylianides knows a thing or two about bureaucrats, having worked in Brussels for five years as commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management. But 10 months into the role as Greece’s first minister for climate crisis and civil protection, the inertia of the Greek system is proving a significant frustration.

“I wouldn’t expect, after having overcome Brussels’ bureaucracy, I would find more trouble with Athens’ bureaucracy,” he said. “I’m blown away by how capable Greeks are. But this excellent potential is unfortunately often blocked by an unprecedented bureaucracy.”

Stylianides — a Cypriot national who was given honorary Greek citizenship to take up the position — has a lot on his plate. Last summer’s devastating wildfires scorched more than 300,000 acres of land — as much as the total area burned in the last eight years — and climate change is driving increased risk of droughts and wildfires. Earlier this month, 52 fires broke out in the space of 24 hours.

“I knew as a crisis man that I was coming into a minefield, I was not naive,” Stylianides told POLITICO joking that the speaker of the Greek parliament Konstantinos Tasoulas calls him “a body donor.”

He acknowledges that the response so far from the Greek authorities has been inadequate but adds that things are finally moving in the right direction. “While the effects of the climate crisis are running at breakneck speed, we are still going at traditional speeds,” Stylianides said.

The government has also been too reactive. A recent WWF report found that up till 2020, 84 percent of state expenditure went to fighting wildfires, compared with just 16 percent spent on prevention. 

That is something Stylianides said he already changing. “We are moving towards the right direction: prevention, preparedness and resilience in terms of natural disaster management,” he said. “The goal is to prevent fires from becoming megafires.”

The inertia of the Greek system is proving a significant frustration for Christos Stylianides, the country’s climate crisis minister | Thierry Roge/AFP via Getty Images

The government has already spent €100 million this year on clearing and maintenance of woodland — something that was helped by better communication between the forestry service and the fire department. It has also hired more firefighters; trained more volunteers; got the army involved early in the operations and bought more aircraft.

To avoid people accidentally (or deliberately) setting fires in tinderbox conditions, ministers have legislated to forbid access to forests and parks when fire risk is high. And by clearing the country’s debt to NATO’s Support and Procurement Agency, it has opened up a route to lease aircraft quickly in an emergency.

But there are still barriers to progress. Stylianides says too often, people use the country’s turgid legal system to challenge the decisions of fire department officials. That ties them up for years, sapping resources and acting as a disincentive for others to stick their head above the parapet.

“I don’t want people to have impunity, but now we are dealing with the absolute criminalization of operational decisions and that’s crippling to the system,” he said.

Another problem is the lack of clear delineation of responsibilities between different layers of government and agencies such as the forestry department. The creation of his ministry is just the starting point for the structural changes necessary for effective climate resilience, he said.

Stylianides said that at the European level, politicians are facing tough political dilemmas when balancing climate action against more immediate concerns.

“If we lead the way towards the direction we want … under geopolitical instability, global war, energy crisis, how will our societies survive? It is a tough dilemma, it is not simple. Politics is not just activism,” he said.

This article is part of the Climate, Changed series.