Nick Pearce is Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at the University of Bath.
Ferdinand Braudel, the great historian of the Annales school, called the Mediterranean Sea ‘an ancient scar on the terrestrial globe’. Braudel believed that the Mediterranean Sea could only be understood in the long perspective of its geological history - that which, far beyond the reaches of human memory, had given it a shape and architecture, and which in turn helped structure the longue duree of the environmental, economic and social history of the Mediterranean world as we know it. In this long history, climatic change was slow, extending over centuries and millennia. Even the most awesome fluctuations occurred over very long periods, Braudel argued, with ‘change accumulating long before its presence becomes visible’.
Scientists have advanced our understanding of the formation of the Mediterranean Sea beyond the knowledge that was available to Braudel. But climate change has done something else too: it has accelerated the passage of Braudelian historical time. The wildfires that ripped through the Mediterranean world this summer have rendered acutely visible the reality of climate change. They are not ‘surface disturbances’ or ‘crests of foam on the tides of history’, as Braudel thought of events in historical time, but markers of deeper dislocations that are rapidly transforming the Mediterranean.
Over recent decades, the surface air temperature of the Mediterranean, including the Mediterranean Sea, has warmed by around 0.4°C per decade. The Mediterranean region is warming 20% faster than the global average. This year, a 48.8 degrees Celsius temperature was registered in Sicily, which if confirmed, will be the highest ever temperature recorded in Europe. In the 21st century, as the latest IPPC working group report pointed out, the Mediterranean is expected to be one of the world’s most prominent and vulnerable climate change hotspots. Summer temperatures will increase by more than the global level, bringing more frequent and intense heat waves and droughts. Precipitation will decrease while demand for water rises. These effects will be experienced heterogeneously across the Mediterranean: this summer’s fires devastated extensive tracts of land and their ecosystems in Greece, Turkey, Spain and Algeria, and the IPCC expects enhanced warming in the future to be concentrated over Turkey, the Balkans, the Iberian Peninsula and North African regions, reaching, locally, values of up to double the global mean. Climate change will be very be visible in these circumstances, as it has been in the scorched earth images of this summer’s conflagrations.
Accidents and arsonists start forest fires, and the Mediterranean world is no stranger to the fires in the dry summer months. Human reshaping of the landscape plays its part too. In countries like Spain and Greece, post-war urban expansion deprived much of the countryside and forests of their traditional stewards, while bringing human habitation into close proximity to fire zones. The decade of austerity that followed the eurozone crisis also denuded Southern Mediterranean states of critical firefighting capability. This year, hundreds of firefighters arrived from Poland, Romania, Slovakia, France and elsewhere to battle the flames in Greece, in a demonstration of European solidarity that was glaringly absent ten years ago.
But as commentators have observed, Greece and other Mediterranean countries have also been steadily investing in the very fossil fuel economy that has caused climate change to accelerate. The tourist sector that is so vital to Spain, Greece, Cyprus and others depends largely on aviation, which accounts for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, and a greater proportion of harmful impacts when other gases and particulates emitted at high altitude are taken into account. Spain and Greece’s airports have seen strong growth in traffic from tourists this year, recovering much of the ground lost to Covid in 2020. Yet low carbon travel options remain limited in much of the Mediterranean (it is difficult, if not impossible, for example, to travel to Greece from Northern Europe by train, since Europe’s high-speed rail networks effectively stop at the Balkans). Shipping is also experiencing renewed growth in the Eastern Mediterranean, the historic transit zone for maritime cargo from Asia to Europe through the Suez Canal. While the shipping sector is edging ahead of aviation in making the transition to low carbon power, as the recent order for eight large methanol cargo ships and so-called ‘e-methanol’ supplies by the Danish firm Maersk indicates, the industry has a long way to go towards net zero. International shipping contributes a further 2% of global energy-related CO2 emissions. Unsurprisingly, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation and maritime sectors constitutes a central focus of the EU’s Green New Deal proposals, which has prompted fierce lobbying from European shipping and airline interests.
The Eastern Mediterranean is also a site of pronounced geo-political tensions over the development and exploitation of vast gas reserves discovered off the coasts of Israel, Egypt, Palestine and Cyprus in the last two decades – the Leviathan, Tamar, Zohr and Aphrodite fields. Last year, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated undiscovered, technically recoverable mean resources of 879 million barrels of conventional oil and 286.2 trillion cubic feet of conventional gas in the eastern Mediterranean area. Discovering and developing these fossil fuels is at the heart of disputes over Exclusive Economic Zones and drilling rights between Greece, and its regional allies in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, and Turkey – disputes which have spilled over into the Libyan civil war, intra-EU politics, and regional relations with Russia and China. In turn, these geo-political tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean drive heavy investments in defence, rather than in net zero infrastructure and environmental protection. Fearful of Ankara’s aggression, Greece has the highest proportion of defence expenditure in GDP of any NATO country, greater even (at 3.82%) than the USA (3.52%).
The consolidation of the Taliban’s power in Afghanistan may spark further turbulence in this combustible mix, as Afghan refugees transit through Iran and Turkey towards Europe. Greece has built a 25 mile wall along the Evros section of its land border with Turkey, to prevent migrants entering the country, and is pressing its EU partners for burden sharing arrangements and technical support. It does not want a repeat of the 2015 Syrian migration crisis. Under significant internal pressure, Turkey’s President Erdoĝan has called for a ‘complete’ stop’ to irregular migration. Turkey is building its own wall along its land border with Iran. The chaotic evacuation of Kabul gives little ground for hopes of a coordinated and managed resettlement of Afghan refugees.
Thus the Mediterranean world faces its own particular - geographically and historically rooted - challenges of what Adam Tooze calls the first ‘comprehensive crisis of the age of the Anthropocene’ – an era defined by the blowback from humanity’s unbalanced relationship with nature. For the people of the Mediterranean world, it is increasingly experienced, not as an immersion in a longue duree, nor as an episodic witnessing of events, but as an often terrifying exposure to accelerating, interlocking environmental and economic crises.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.