PALAMAS, Greece — With Europe at war with extreme weather caused by climate change, Greece is on the front lines, with unprecedented flooding and wildfires hitting the country within weeks of each other this summer.
And as the weather becomes more extreme, so does the public anger. NBC News traveled the length of the country to speak to scientists, political leaders and people rebuilding their lives after the catastrophic events, and witnessed what looks to be a new era of climate politics taking hold in Greece and perhaps other democracies in the world.
Storm Daniel moved through the Mediterranean the first week of September, bulging the two rivers that flow on either side of the town of Palamas in central Greece's Thessaly plain, which is known as the country’s bread basket. At least 17 people were killed across the country as communities reeled from three days of intense rainfall.
The floods came just weeks after other parts of Greece suffered the worst fires in Europe. Climate change and a tinder-dry year created one of Greece’s hottest summers on record and the perfect conditions for an uncontrollable inferno that destroyed hundreds of square miles of forest.
Lifetime’s work lost
On one corner of a ruined street in Palamas, an entire wall has been ripped away to reveal a bedroom with family pictures still hanging up.
The bed has been thrown about by the water, but coats remain untouched on a rack. Also visible are a Greek flag and a military cap sent to the homeowners, whose son died during military service.
On a street in this quiet, rural town, every house was flooded. Personal belongings are strewn across Nicholas Plasteras street, the cars covered in thick sludge, homes damaged or destroyed. People searched for days through the wreckage looking for valuables.
Sotiris Boutas, 35, described how he fled to a roof at 4 a.m. with 12 others. They were without food or water for two days, he said. The townsfolk had received no warning, he said.
Boutas ran a restaurant serving souvlaki, the classic Greek dish of marinated, grilled meat. Not anymore.
“It’s destroyed,” he said. Only the walls of his house are left.
Thousands of acres of farmland and crops have been ruined in the region of Palamas.
Many farmers have lost a lifetime’s work. But some here don’t blame the global effects of climate change but what they see as local corruption and incompetence.
Georgia Bloufa, a 60-year-old widow, worked at a local restaurant but her job is now gone, along with much of her belongings. She saved a wedding picture, but little else. Like many here, she is coming to terms with a new reality of extreme weather, having never thought about climate change before.
Her family escaped their house at around 5 a.m., her youngest grandson carried on his father’s shoulders. Her cousin called the police, but it was no use.
“They said they don’t know anything,” she said. “People were not warned.”
It’s a sentiment felt across the town. Many residents said they only received text message alerts when it was too late to evacuate their houses safely.
For those opposed to Greece’s leaders, it’s a political opportunity.
“The government doesn’t care about ordinary people,” said George Archontopoulos, president of the Thessaloniki-based Eyath trade union, which represents local water service workers.
“The government is now in its second term and is out of excuses,” he said.
“They only care about the big multinationals, big lobby and the big construction companies that are friends of the government,” Archontopoulos said.
Climate change is global and affects everyone, he argued, whereas the lack of protection and preparedness is a Greek problem.
Dissatisfaction with environmental politics — and a distrust of those in power — is a trend sweeping Europe: from the movement opposing the closure of Dutch farms, to protesters in London warning of conspiracy theories about “climate lockdowns.”
And this could only be the start. Greece’s leading climate scientist, Christos Zerefos, believes his homeland and the whole of Europe needs to completely redesign its civil protection programs or face political upheaval.
“If we don’t, we shall be relying and depending on calculations from 50 years ago and from the past climate, which is no longer the same,” he said. “The climate has been warmed up.”
Zerefos said people are worried because the fires and the storms are a warning of what can happen if the country doesn’t adapt to a new reality. Storm Daniel was the worst disaster in Greece for 400 years, but could become the norm.
“After the year 2050, 2060, all of the Mediterranean will be in bad shape in terms of extreme events,” Zerefos said. “They would happen more often and with larger intensity.”
Anger at politicians
Across southern Europe the changing climate is bringing with it a new political reality. It is beginning to increase immigration from North Africa into Europe, putting a strain on Greece, Italy and the wider Mediterranean region, pushing voters to political extremes.
An election in June saw far-right parties win 13% of the Greek national vote, earning them 34 seats in Parliament; 12 of those went to the Spartans party, widely seen as a successor to the banned neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn. The ruling center-right New Democracy Party has been dragged toward the extreme right, analysts say.
Greece’s leadership has been trying to address the concerns of ordinary people most acutely affected by floods and wildfires, many of whom direct their anger not at global warming or the use of fossil fuels — but politicians.
In the capital, Athens, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis spoke to NBC News just after securing a 2.25 billion euros ($2.4 billion) pledge from the European Union in post-flood support.
He is in no doubt about the scale of the problem.
“The fact that we are witnessing these extreme events with greater frequency means that we need to plan our civil protection in a different way,” he said. “It’s a war we have to fight with an enemy, sometimes we cannot avoid, sometimes we can contain.”
Phoebe Koundouri, an expert in the economics of climate change at Athens University, said it is natural for people to be angry when the right information about what is causing the extreme weather, and how to mitigate its effects, has not found its way to politicians, businesses or the public.
“They are angry, yes. They are desperate and they’re angry at everyone. The solution needs science, it means saying, ‘I understand that climate change is happening and I understand I can be part of the solution,’” she said.
“Politicians need to understand that this is an emergency — but also that there are huge opportunities for job generation,” added Koundouri.
‘Live by luck’
A six-hour drive from Palamas, in the far northeast, is the Evros region, which borders Turkey and Bulgaria.
Theodora Skartsi, 60, manager of the Society for the Protection of Biodiversity of Thrace, an environmental group, takes NBC News on a winding drive to a vantage point in the National Forest near the village of Dadia, where birds of prey circle overhead. Almost everything here was charred or turned to ash and rubble.
“In some places, the forest is totally burned. In some other places, they kept their leaves but the trunk was burned. And in some other places we have some green islands,” she said, describing the forest as having been attacked by a “fire monster.”
Rallying a response to climate change is made harder because many factors are at play. Skartsi has worked here since 1993 and is convinced global warming is a catalyst.
“Climate change is here and it was an important factor for the strong fire. It’s difficult to fight against it because the forest was very dry and easily burned,” she said. And if forest fires continue, flooding then becomes a hugely increased risk, she warned. But she had a list of other issues.
Problems stretching back decades, such as a lack of rangers to protect the land, a lack of funding for the fire service and the abandonment of traditional farming methods, result in a forest that has little resilience to climate change, she said.
Christos Siarnaferis, 34, a volunteer firefighter, agrees.
“There are people who grew up on this mountain — lumberjacks, hunters, locals, farmers, too — their land is next to the forest. The authorities didn’t listen to them. We had predicted 4-5 days earlier that the fire would get here. They didn’t take us seriously, and that’s the result,” he said.
However, Siarnaferis doesn’t squarely blame global warming but the Mediterranean region’s long hot year. “This past winter it only rained for a month, which was not enough. It didn’t snow,” he said.
Even in a relatively small country like Greece, catastrophic climate events are having different impacts in different places. And hitting the country hardest where it is already facing a climate of political cynicism.
“People do not trust the government,” Archontopoulos, the union leader, said. “We say here, ‘You live by luck in Greece.’”
Keir Simmons and Alex Holmes reported from Greece, Patrick Smith reported from London.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com