Europe’s Wildfires: Hellish Summers under Capitalism

Greece Fires

An unprecedented number of wildfires have set Europe alight in the past month. Nine Mediterranean countries have been hit, leading to many people losing their homes and even their lives. These are the deadly consequences of capitalism’s climate catastrophe.

Greece has been hit particularly hard. It registered its longest and most unrelenting heat wave since records began. Some 400 wildfires illuminated satellite photographs and devastated olive groves and pine forests, as well as homes, farms and flocks.

Over 20,000 people were evacuated in the south of Rhodes, while Corfu has been hit with severe blazes. Two firefighting pilots tragically lost their lives due to a plane crash into a hillside on the island of Evia, East of Athens, trying to extinguish the blaze.

In the Sicilian cities of Catania and Palermo, the night sky glowed orange as residents were caught in a terrifying siege by the fires, which cut off supplies of electricity and water. These are like the scenes of a devastating war.

Meanwhile, in Algeria, the wildfires have proven particularly deadly, killing at least 34 people.

On August 7, wildfires broke out in Portugal, burning through thousands of hectares and forcing 1,400 people from their homes.

These wildfires were lit after scorching heat turned the Mediterranean into a tinderbox. Back-to-back heat waves brought temperatures up into the high 40s, breaking records for the hottest month ever recorded.

In fact, a recent study found that for four out of five people on the planet, July was the hottest month ever recorded, with heat waves striking China, North America and now Latin America, some parts of which are experiencing 35C heat… in midwinter.

The consequences of this heat are frightful to consider. The European Health Institute found that from late May to early September last year, more than 61,600 people died from heat-related causes across 35 European countries—in what was then Europe’s hottest summer on record. The grim toll of this year’s heat has yet to be counted.

Nothing about this is natural. A global team of climate scientists working for the World Weather Attribution (WWA) initiative organized by Imperial College London described these heat waves as “virtually impossible” without human-induced climate change.

Whilst wildfires raged in the south of Italy, much of the north experienced intense thunderstorms. Six northern regions remained on emergency alert due to heavy rainfall, risk of flash floods, hail and falling trees, according to weather monitoring sites. These extreme events have taken at least five lives.

“In Italy we are experiencing one of the most complicated days in recent decades: cloudbursts, tornadoes, hail in the North; torrid heat and devastating fires in the Center-South,” said the civil protection minister Musumeci.

Whilst arson, electrical faults, barbecues, cigarette butts and lightning have all been blamed for sparking this or that fire, the extreme heat and tinderbox conditions brought about by climate change have given them a ferocious destructive force as drying vegetation and soil combined with dry, hot air have created immense amounts of combustible material.

And beyond the Mediterranean, we’ve seen the effects of climate change globally this summer: with heat waves, wildfires and extreme weather, stretching from Canada to China.

Turning a blind eye

And things threaten to become much worse. “Unless the world rapidly stops burning fossil fuels, these events will become even more common and the world will experience heat waves that are even hotter and longer-lasting,” researchers told the Financial Times.

But we already knew this, and have known for decades that these dramatic events were coming down the road as a result of climate change. And yet, the ruling classes have turned a blind eye and have done nothing to either halt or mitigate climate change, nor in preparation for its devastating consequences.

Driven only by the impulse for short-term profits, and combined with the cost-cutting of government austerity that is dictated by the crisis of capitalism, they have failed to upgrade infrastructure in preparation for the extremes that climate change would inevitably bring.

This was particularly evident in Greece. This was not the first time that Greece has had to deal with wildfires. In fact, for over 10 years there have been occurrences of wildfires due to the ever hotter summers. However, instead of preparing for those conditions, government austerity dictated by the Troika has landed firefighting services in a lamentable state.

According to a Reuters interview with the head of Greece’s firefighters federation, there is a gap of 5,000 firefighters that urgently needs to be filled.

“If my father had not stayed, our house would have burned down,” one Greek woman told the media, “The fire service was nowhere. Fortunately there were volunteers, I feel anger, nothing else.” A 77-year-old resident added: “The government should resign as soon as possible. They did absolutely nothing, zero. Everyone is desperate. Everyone is disappointed.”

Meanwhile, the capitalists are continuing to burn fossil fuels and slash public services as if there is no tomorrow—or, rather, as if to assure that there will be no tomorrow for millions. What is rational for the ruling class is completely irrational for the rest of humanity. They know that in the long-term they are creating a hell on Earth. But the logic of capitalism drives them ever onward in the pursuit of short term profit. Wildfires, tornadoes and flash floods do not appear in the capitalists’ account ledgers, and therefore leave them unmoved.

In the meantime, it is the working class that is bearing the brunt of the consequences.

The Financial Times, reporting on last year’s heatwave, explained that while we do not yet have a breakdown of the class backgrounds of those killed in the 2022 heat, “experts said that in a 2003 heat wave that killed up to 70,000 people, most who died were low-income.”

As we found with COVID-19, it is the workers, the poor, and the vulnerable who pay with their lives. Just as workers were sent to work without PPE in 2020, so workers across Europe have no maximum working temperature protections.

“Most of the time, you have headaches because of the heat,” Naveed Khan, a 39-year-old food delivery cyclist, told the New York Times before driving through the sweltering streets of Milan. He takes painkillers every other day, he said, to handle the discomfort, but can’t stop working. “I don’t have any other job,” he said.

And it’s not just during work that the poor suffer. Many low-income workers cannot even find relief at home, as they cannot afford air conditioning. Many public apartment buildings in Italy are decades old, and residents liken them to “furnaces” in the summer. One retired freight handler told The Times that he coped by filling his bathtub with ice-cold water.

Life is becoming hell under capitalism.

Broken promises

Wildfire town Image Don Balkwill Twitter
The urgent question is posed of adaptation to the new conditions that it is creating. / Image: Don Balkwill, Twitter

Whilst politicians and CEOs meet up in their well-ventilated, AC-cooled rooms to promise one “climate agreement” after another, the rest of the world is literally burning up. No sooner has the ink dried on these “climate commitments” and regulations, than they are thrown out of the window as they soon come into conflict with the short-term interests of the ruling class.

This is why Marxists highlight the fundamental point: we cannot plan what we do not control, and we cannot control what we do not own. We cannot build a sustainable supply of energy, build housing in which people can live comfortably, and lay out the necessary infrastructure if all these companies are operating solely to make profit.

Even if a capitalist had the will to switch to more sustainable energy sources, it simply would not be profitable for them to do so. The expensive infrastructure for it does not exist.

Furthermore, we need an international plan, but international cooperation is impossible under capitalism, as we’ve seen with the dash for fossil fuels between marauding national gangs of capitalists to ensure their own national “energy security” since the Ukraine war helped to drive up prices since last year.

The energy, water, housing, infrastructure companies and the banks must all be fully nationalized and operated democratically by the working class, to function in the interest of society as a whole.

The effects of climate change are already with us. The urgent question is posed of adaptation to the new conditions that it is creating. We must adapt the houses in the Mediterranean, and elsewhere in the world, to the increasingly hot summers. But instead of quality house building, the capitalist class speculate in housing as they do in other commodities, pushing up rents for workers attempting to survive in ever less adequate housing.

We must reduce working hours, especially over the summers when work under extreme heat presents a threat to life. For the capitalists, on the contrary, the deeper the crisis the more they put an upward pressure on working hours to make the working class pay. The need to invest in good public services, with sufficient firefighters for instance, and access to good healthcare, will become ever more pressing. But as the capitalist state creaks under the burden of debt from propping up the ailing capitalist system with repeated bailouts, these services are slashed to the bone.

Above all, we must implement a long-term solution to bring the further warming of the planet to a halt—and even to reduce global temperatures.

Freed from the limits of private property and the nation state, the whole world could be supplied with clean, abundant energy and the necessary infrastructure rapidly installed along the lines of a global plan.

We have all the tools to do this—and the money. The main barrier preventing us from doing so is the fact that those means are concentrated in the hands of the ruling class. This is why we need to expropriate the big banks and major companies and bring them under the democratic control of the working class.

The world is literally burning, the capitalists have created these hellish summers for ordinary people, and summer heat will only become more severe in the years to come. We have to urgently smash this system.

Are you a communist?
Then apply to join your party!