IN DEPTH

Addressing the root cause of the recent fires

addressing-the-root-cause-of-the-recent-fires

This summer’s forest fires in Greece were horrifying. Extreme and uncommon heatwaves laid bare both the immediacy of the global climate crisis and the country’s chronic and systemic weaknesses when it comes to forest management, environmental protection and fighting forest fires. We were fortunate in terms of the minimal loss of life, but this was still a complete disaster, which was in many ways within our human ability to control.

Climate change and the risk of extreme heat was known; what we witnessed in Greece bore an uncanny resemblance to what has been seen with growing intensity since 2017 in Portugal, California, Australia and even Siberia, all of which have also suffered catastrophic fires. We knew that Greece was heading for a difficult summer of near-certain fires, given the extreme winter storms that created an unusual amount of debris which turned into tinder. The rains stopped in April; this early drought allowed ample time for concerted action. The devastating forest fire in Attica’s Geraneia Mountains in May was an important harbinger of the difficulties ahead. Still, few of the recommendations to reverse the sad state of forest management and implement fire prevention measures as documented in the Goldammer report on the 2019 Mati fire disaster were then enacted. Turf wars led to poor resourcing and an ineffective fire prevention approach. Concerned locals in areas like Vilia asked to assist in clearing debris from forest access roads, only to be met by bureaucratic inaction and permission hurdles. Firefighting equipment and airplanes had been marginally increased since 2019, but they were far from adequate in dealing with the kind of fires we saw this summer. A stark contrast in preparedness arrived as other countries generously sent help, offering what we did not have here. For all the heroism of individual Greek firefighters, the nation was simply not well equipped. 

The question arises, why not? Did Greece fail to see the threat? Or was it simply incapable of preparing a commensurate response? Most importantly, what can we do about it to prevent future tragedy with our current foresight? A little over two weeks ago, a special session in Parliament aimed to answer this question. Perhaps predictably, the opposition gloated that the government had failed, condemning governmental action, ridiculing the government’s signature reforms to turn the famously inefficient Greek state into an “executive state” – aka an administration with greater accountability and efficiency. The opposition also demanded resignations of key ministers, and ultimately the government obliged through its reshuffle early this month. 

Neither posturing nor reshuffling the cabinet will fix the issue. The root cause which begs attention and redress is the organizational inefficiency, chaotic structures, and the lack of accountability. The dearth of competency, the problematic assignment of responsibilities and personnel, and the use of political or parochial criteria for key decisions were the culprits and continue to endanger future responses. Juxtapose this with one of the few things that did work well this summer: the system of real-time evacuation notifications that helped save lives as the fires spread. This system worked as it had a streamlined structure, clear responsibilities and accountability. 

So, far from the opposition’s argument being evidence that the idea of an “executive state” is a failure, the recent fiasco illuminates that the Greek state was not executive enough. The 2019 law to establish the “executive state” was voted in to address the lack of organizational discipline, accountability and measurable outputs. These are the same deeply rooted ailments that caused the Greek crisis; though noted by the infamous memorandum between Greece and its creditors, they still persist.

What we saw in Parliament was that the opposition, while enumerating the symptoms of the problem, wasn’t able to even fathom, let alone acknowledge and address, its deeper causes. It called for financial support for those affected – including early retirement, a popular if suicidal refrain of Greek politicians – and offered vague exhortations for a “holistic approach” and coordination across a heightened hierarchy that would further dilute any accountability. The opposition’s grandiose coordinating schemes do not address the limitations of existing structures, instead layering more structures upon them. The opposition has missed the opportunity to leverage this crisis and offer a viable alternative.

What we need is a more “executive” state, one that can collaborate with NGOs and residents’ associations. Given the current inadequacies of the Greek state and the pressing needs presented by natural disasters, we need the state to engage meaningfully with volunteers. A new institution of private reforestation contractors should be seen as a boon to the state and not something dismissed offhand as a matter of principle, as the Movement for Change (KINAL) party did. The opposition must remove its ideological blinders to offer productive criticism. Together, we must scrutinize how the state will interface with the private sector and how the central administration will cooperate with the municipalities and civil society. The state needs to focus on measuring and assessing responsibilities for ensuring forests are cleared of dead organic material and that fire prevention measures are applied. But in this effort it needs to work with, not against, citizen groups, NGOs and the private sector, ensuring efficiency and accountability on every level.

The government has a window for change. After the heavy blow of the fires, they received a political gift in the opposition’s inability to rise to the occasion in recent parliamentary debate. Additionally, SYRIZA’s blatantly parochial response to the proposed appointment of Admiral Evangelos Apostolakis, a generally respected former chief of staff and SYRIZA minister, spelled out the leftist party’s narrow, old-fashioned partisanship, ceding the higher ground if the government is able to take it. 

To leverage this moment, the government needs courage and action well beyond reshuffles. The creation of the Ministry of Civil Protection, led by promising new Minister Christos Stylianides, is a good start. Ditto for the recently upgraded Directorate of Forests at the Environment Ministry. Even so, little can be achieved by those with the best of intentions barring structural change and a deeply committed focus on the environment. The prime minister should seize the opportunity to propose a new model for the management of fires, turning cheap talk about the environment into action and true commitment. For this, he will have to overcome resistance to change and build an exemplar of the executive state.


Michael G. Jacobides (www.jacobides.com) holds the Sir Donald Gordon Chair of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the London Business School, where he is professor of strategy. He is a strategy adviser to the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and the Cultural Heritage.