CNN INTERVIEW: Greek PM admits climate crisis at the heart of fire tragedy


Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was interviewed yesterday by CNN's Fareed Zakaria over the unprecedented forest fires ravaging the country, admitting that climate crisis is at the heart of the problem which cannot be addressed  through lofty declarations.

"We need to drastically change the way we produce electricity, the way we build our buildings, the way we grow our food. We need to change things, and we need to start now." said Mitsotakis.


Fareed Zakaria: The statistics from Greece’s wildfires are astounding. More than 500 separate fires burning in a country roughly the same size as Pennsylvania. More than 20 other nations have sent help. And more than half of Greece’s second-largest island, Evia, has already burned.

Meanwhile, Europe reported what appears to be its highest ever temperature, reaching almost 120 degrees in Sicily. The heat comes from an anticyclone that has fittingly been nicknamed “Lucifer.” Parts of Southern Europe have truly looked like hell this week. Joining me now is Greece’s Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Prime Minister, welcome. First, my condolences. How did this get so out of hand?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Fareed, thank you for having me. We faced an unprecedented heatwave. For approximately 10 days we had temperatures exceeding 43C, getting close to 45 degrees Celsius. We haven’t had such a bad heatwave for many, many decades.

And we had to deal with almost 600 fires that broke out over the span of a week. We did manage to put out almost all of them but unfortunately a few of them got very big, so at some point we had to deal with four megafires simultaneously.

We did the best we could, we evacuated tens of thousands of people. Fortunately we managed to protect human lives, we only had one loss of human life, so our Civil Protection in that respect did a great job. But of course we are faced with a big environmental catastrophe, a significant number of forests have been destroyed.

And I am afraid that this is going to be the reality that areas such as the Mediterranean will be facing from now on. This was not just a Greek problem. You spoke about the fires in Sicily, in Algeria, in Turkey. This is the climate crisis striking here and now. And it’s really time for all of us to get very serious about what we should do about it.

Fareed Zakaria: One of the reasons you had, really quite astonishingly, almost no loss of life, one firefighter, is you have in place a pretty innovative technological warning system. Explain what you did.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, as you probably remember, back in 2018 we had a true catastrophe. A fire close to Athens, not a particularly big fire but a blaze that moved very, very quickly, killed more than 100 people because we were unable and we did not have the technology at the time to evacuate them properly.

So, one of my personal commitments when I came to power two years ago was to set up a system using the international emergency number, 112, where we can actually blast SMS messages to all cell phones within a predefined area, with very specific instructions as to what they need to do. So we can warn them, we can give them evacuation instructions. And there’s a very shrill sound that you hear when you know that you will receive a message from Civil Protection, you do need to pay attention to it.

It worked extremely well and it did allow us to properly evacuate tens of thousands of people.

Fareed Zakaria: You’ve talked about the climate crisis. But you know even in Europe, where people are much more aware of this, there is a lot of resistance to taking the pain that will inevitably come from serious efforts to attack our climate crisis. The Gilets Jaunes movement in France was essentially a protest against gas taxes.

Do you think that something like the forest fires will be a wake-up call? Will it be easier for you to pass measures that will really address the climate crisis?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: First of all, Fareed, let me point out that Europe is at the forefront of tackling climate change. As you know, we have set a very ambitious target to bring down greenhouse gases by 55% by 2030, and the goal is to become climate neutral by 2050. So these are very ambitious targets.

And the good thing is that now we also have the financial instruments to support these types of policies.

Of course we need the people on board. And I can tell you that Greece was at the forefront of decarbonizing even before this crisis struck. Back in 2019 I announced that within a relatively short timeframe we would shut down all our coal-fired, in our case lignite-fired, electricity plants. And we have worked very hard, with the local communities, to ensure that we can make this transition work for them and that we will actually create more jobs than the jobs that will be lost.

But we need to explain to people that this is a one-way street, that this is a crisis that cannot be addressed just through lofty declarations; that we need to put our money where our mouth is. And I certainly intend for Greece to be at the forefront of this effort.

this is going to be a wake-up call, this and other catastrophes. I think it is becoming a reality, especially for the younger generation, that we need to drastically change the way that we produce electricity, the way we build our buildings, the way we grow our food, the way we move around. This has to happen and we need to start now.

Fareed Zakaria: It feels like this is an area where the United States is not really the leader. Europe has more ambitious targets, more ambitious policies. What do you want to see from the United States?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Well, first of all, I had a chance to speak with Secretary Kerry extensively, and I am happy that this is a very important agenda for the new Biden administration. So, I do think things in the US are much better and that the current administration recognizes that the US needs to take the lead when it comes to addressing climate change.

Of course, with the US being the largest economy in the world, I think it is going to be a hotbed of innovation, because we cannot address this issue without significant investment in R&D and without significant innovation.

So, I’m much more optimistic about the role that the US can play, but we need all the big players on board, the US, China, India. Everyone needs to do their share.

READ: GREECE ON FIRE: More Regions On High Alert As Increased Fire Risks Continue