Saturday, the 23rd of July 2022.
So what does it take, really? What has to happen to put an end to the use of fossil fuels for good? Temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius will not give us respite over the coming days (and we’re only in July). By 18 July 1063 people had already died in the heatwave, as announced, matter-of-factly by the Ministry of Health in Lisbon. And now what? What should we do? Buy an air-conditioning unit? Bring down the room temperatures? Some people are able to afford this, most however can’t. At some point we all have to leave our house, and not only at night.
To the Portimão autodrome where the racing cars fly round the bends? Test drives, what have you. And tourists continue to fly into the Algarve using Faro airport, and to fly out again the same way. Business (tourism) as usual. Sunshine and sand. Others take their car to surf on the west coast, and back again. All is going the way it always has. We are standing in the traffic jam and say, oh look over there, it’s burning again, see? What happens when an element called fire ignites, whether through arson or by sparks from a high-voltage overhead power line, hit by careless eucalyptus trees? The culprit there was the wind as it were. 80% of forest fires erupt as a consequence of flying sparks is the verdict of an expert from Coimbra University, someone who knows what he’s talking about: Professor Dr Xavier Domingos. Human negligence so. Stupidity?
Forest fires erupt and spread, and unless a pilot comes crashing down with his water scooper plane, the flames are at some point put out again by the firefighters and the planes, running on fossil fuels. Sometimes it even rains. Not in Portugal. That’s when nature lends a hand. Every year we lose important providers of shade and oxygen through forest fires. The planes are an enormous help in inaccessible woodlands and mountainous areas. However, if the land keeps burning like this, soon more than a few thousand people will die, and not just succumbing to the heat.
Water is becoming scarce. Not only agriculture is reaching its limits. Hunger and thirst will follow in their wake. Not straight away, but pretty soon. Millions of climate refugees are heading north. In the not too distant future we’ll be part of them. But where will this journey take us?
To Great Britain? Or Germany? The Netherlands? France? By now it’s burning there too. The strong wind is accompanied by draught. No rain in sight. We have to make do with what we’ve got. Which is getting to be less and less. Things are looking tight if it shouldn’t rain next winter either. And the water-guzzling eucalyptus forest serving the Navigator company’s paper production will soon be redundant too.
There are solutions to this problem. First off we’d have to actually see and acknowledge the problem. 40 degrees Celsius, that’s four degrees above fever pitch. To remain below this level we’d have to immediately and sustainably reforest the burnt woodlands with native, frugal tree cultures. That would be the project of the century. It’s something that you have to stick with though. It’s never enough to simply plant trees. This would require force and courage, but also know-how and continuity. All this is lacking in most people. What they want is the usual: bread and games, TV and Internet and everything that’s fun.
However, the fun society is hitting its limit. Put bluntly, those who want to carry on living on this planet, which includes Portugal, will be forced to keep adapting, or will kick the bucket. Heat deaths are quiet deaths. The heart simply stops beating. Nature-based solutions, such as reforestation with billions of trees is a valid demand, but planting trees without looking after them, without know-how and without loving care, what the Portuguese call “carinho” doesn’t work. Every municipality should develop local projects requiring national and international support: like in Torres Vedras. This wouldn’t even take a lot of money. What it would take is a courageous new policy of lean bureaucracy and new laws to provide young people that want to move out to the countryside with houses and plots lying empty for free. City flight instead of rural exodus. Our schools need teachers who are prepared to dig in the soil with their fingers and teach children how to feed themselves, and how to work with trees. One square kilometre of burnt forest releases 20,000 tons of CO2 (to quote António Guterres, UN Secretary General). Each and every forest fire has to be prevented, urgently. This is only possible if we all strive for a sustainable approach to trees. This requires education.
At the moment it looks like the average surface global warming of three degrees is becoming an entirely real scenario and that we’ll be seeing rises in temperature of six degrees and more. This will result in a barely imaginable radicalisation of weather events – with disastrous consequences for all of humanity and material damage of a kind we can hardly imagine. Most of us will breathe their last with climate change. The cemeteries will fill up. What will we do then with all those cars left without their drivers, and with all those vacant houses? And where then will those left behind go for their holidays?