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Cruel summer: Will 2023 mark a tipping point for climate change?


As record heat was just starting to sweep across the Northern Hemisphere this summer, Nikolaos Mihalopoulos was clearing the overgrowth in his garden of olive and citrus trees in the Peloponnese region of Greece.

His village home had been basking in the rainy month of June, and the grasses were growing to over 3 feet, he says. In early July, he had to clear the overgrowth yet again. 

Then, like so many other regions throughout northern Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America, an unprecedented heat wave began to sweep over Greece, pushing temperatures up to a record 116 degrees Fahrenheit in the Peloponnese. June’s verdant landscapes quickly dried to a desiccated yellow – setting the stage for a conflagration of wildfires that grabbed global headlines in July.

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A summer marked by the hottest temperatures on record has raised fundamental questions about how to manage climate crises – and take responsibility for doing so.

Wildfires are relatively common this time of year, but high temperatures and strong winds turned them into heat wave-inflicted infernos racing through dried-out landscapes. Almost 20,000 tourists needed to be rescued on the island of Rhodes – an operation Greek officials called the country’s largest evacuation effort ever. Firefighting crews from all over Europe were brought in to battle the flames, even as the 2023 wildfires were spewing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in a week than Greece normally produces in a year.

“More and more people are now persuaded that there is a climate crisis,” says Dr. Mihalopoulos, research director at the Institute for Environmental Research and Sustainable Development at the National Observatory of Athens, which began meteorological observations in 1858. “I don’t know if they know the causes – this is a big question mark. But they know that something not normal is happening.”

Petros Giannakouris/AP

People play on Glystra Beach in front of a forest burnt by wildfires on the island of Rhodes, Greece, July 27, 2023.

Regardless of public attitudes, the changing climate is putting the country’s iconic olive oil production at risk. Tourism, which comprises nearly 20% of Greece’s economy, is also threatened. By necessity, most homes in large cities now have air conditioners, and about half in smaller towns and villages do as well. It has created a vicious circle that requires the production of even more carbon-emitting energy, while also taking up a greater share of household costs.

Discussions of climate change, in fact, have been happening for over 50 years. The long-term impact of carbon emissions and the resulting global greenhouse effects are both well-established and relatively simple scientific observations. Headlines over the past decade have reported other dangerous heat waves, massive wildfires, and patterns of unusually violent weather.