Without climate action, extreme wildfires may be here to stay

Fires in Algeria, Tunisia and Greece offer a brutal taste of what the future may hold without decisive moves to stymie the worst of global warming

Men watch smoke rising from forest fires near the town of Melloula in north-western Tunisia, close to the border with Algeria on Monday. Wildfires raging across Algeria during a blistering heatwave have killed more than 30 people and forced mass evacuations. AFP
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Sheets of flame, acrid smoke blacking out the sun, desperate families fleeing for safety – the sobering images of wildfires raging at either end of the Mediterranean this week should leave no doubt that we are living in a climate emergency.

The deaths of more than 30 people in Algeria alone are a brutal warning about what the future may hold unless there is decisive action to stymie the worst effects of global warming. The country’s meteorological services are already saying a record heatwave will hit Algeria in the coming days, with temperatures forecast to hit 48ºC. Algeria’s fires have also spread to neighbouring Tunisia, endangering lives in the border city of Tabarka as the authorities try to fight back the flames.

Meanwhile, Greece is reported to be going through the largest evacuation of people in its modern history, as fires destroy homes and businesses across islands as far apart as Rhodes in the Aegean and Corfu in the Ionian Sea. A Greek firefighting plane crashed yesterday as it tackled blazes on another island, Evia, east of Athens.

Although dozens of people have already lost their lives in the North African fires, a lot of the international attention – as well as shock and surprise – has been focused on the blazes in Greece, where thousands of mostly European tourists have been left frightened and upset at the danger that suddenly sprang up around them.

Algeria and Tunisia hit by devastating wildfires

Algeria and Tunisia hit by devastating wildfires

Sadly, the reality is that millions of people in the developing world have been living with the deadly consequences of climate change for several years now. Floods, droughts, extreme heat, crop failure, increasing disease – and fires – have been regular occurrences for too many people for too long.

The truth is that no part of our world will be left untouched by the planet’s rapidly changing climate. The fires we are seeing in Europe and North Africa are not only devastating and deadly in the short term – they damage countries’ power and water supplies, hit agriculture and lead to dangerous levels of air pollution. People are left homeless or without a livelihood. Recovering from fires is a slow, arduous task that is rendered almost Sisyphean by the fact that such extreme blazes are a now annual occurrence in some countries, leaving little time for the area to heal.

If the problem is global, then so must be the solutions. The kind of initiatives and dialogue being championed in the UAE – a country used to mitigating searing heat, and which is preparing to host the Cop28 UN climate conference – should be taken on board by any remaining legislators who either doubt climate change or regard it as a developing-world problem.

Last week, Dr Sultan Al Jaber, President-designate of Cop28, urged more countries to join a pledge to deliver more sustainable cooling solutions. At the International Conference on Development and Migration in Rome on Sunday, President Sheikh Mohamed pledged $100 million to help countries manage irregular migration, a phenomenon often driven by climate change and its effects. And on Monday, it was announced that the UAE had joined forces with the UN, Interpol and other important global bodies to tackle crimes against the environment, including through the establishment in Abu Dhabi of a global training centre to support police services.

There is no more room for complacency. This week’s fires have revealed what many knew already from first-hand experience: that climate change knows no borders. The co-operation needed to head off the increasing threat of global warming will need to be similarly international.

Published: July 26, 2023, 3:00 AM
Updated: July 27, 2023, 11:31 AM