The Dictate of Climate Change: Cooperation Between Neighbors

August 18, 2021

Most of world’s conflicts, some armed others luckily not, are among neighbors. They are about territory, borders, economic and political interests, power, threat perceptions. Some have an ideological dimension. If neighbors in conflict are located in unstable strategic regions, involvement of other neighbors is likely; involvement of major powers is a certainty. Over time some turn into frozen conflicts. All conflicts, particularly armed ones come at a price. They result in loss of life, displacement of peoples, undermine economic and political development. Their impact transcends borders.

Now, however,  there is a bigger challenge facing mankind and it calls for collective action.

Last week, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) started issuing its Sixth Assessment Report on climate change. An IPCC  press release said  many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and some of the changes already set in motion—such as continued sea level rise—are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres described the report as a “code red for humanity”. This was no exaggeration. Recent disasters like the floods in Germany and Turkey, forest fires in Algeria, Greece, Italy, Turkey, the US, and the  smoke from similar fires in Siberia reaching the north pole for the first time in recorded history show that climate change can hit countries regardless of their level of development and international status.

Thus, it is clear that climate change will dominate the global agenda of the future to the extent allowed by major power competition and ongoing conflicts. What can be accomplished through international cooperation in view of the huge costs involved and differences in levels of economic development remains to be seen. Nonetheless, regional cooperation  to combat the immediate symptoms of climate change such as forest fires may offer opportunities for modest progress.

During the past weeks forest fires devastated Turkey’s Turquoise Coast. Eight people lost their lives and thousands had to flee their homes. Tourists were evacuated by land and sea. The ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) government  acknowledged that it did not have firefighting aircraft. “Why?” was the big question. By all indications it was not prepared for the disaster and could not rise up to the challenge. All the ministers could say was, “the fires are under control.” There was no admission of neglect, mismanagement. Besides forest fires on its southern coast, Turkey is also experiencing disastrous floods along the Black Sea and droughts in other areas. Death toll from the floods is rising.

Greece is also experiencing devastating forest fires, “a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions” in the words of Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. On August 8, the European Commission announced that the EU Civil Protection Mechanism continues to channel support to help combat the forest fires in Greece and the rest of the Mediterranean. Mr. Mitsotakis apologized for failings in tackling the blazes in a televised address to the nation saying: “I personally want to say sorry for any weaknesses that have appeared.” And he announced a 500-million-euro package of aid for Evia and the Attica region around Athens.

Turkey and Greece forest fires took me back to the years when I served as Turkey’s ambassador to Athens. I arrived there at the end of 1997 and relations were tense.

In February 1999 came the failed operation to hide the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in the Greek ambassador’s residence in Kenya which sent the relationship to new lows. The two countries agreed that their only option was to talk. At the time Turkey’s prime minister was Bülent Ecevit, a truly democratic leader.

On August 17, 1999, a 7.4 magnitude earthquake hit Turkey’s Marmara region, the densely populated region in industrial heartland of Turkey. Homes, businesses were ruined. Thousands lost their lives. Greece was one of the first countries to offer help.

On September 7, 1999,  a 6.0 magnitude earthquake hit Athens leaving 143 people dead, 700 injured and hundreds of buildings damaged. Turkish rescue teams with the fresh experience of the past three weeks rushed to the Greek capital to help.

The two earthquakes led to an outburst of mutual sympathy. Although a process of dialogue had already been launched, perhaps without much fanfare, it came to be known as “earthquake diplomacy”. Both countries benefitted from the new climate. But the  Turkish-Greek detente did not last. In recent years, relations between the two neighbors have once again turned confrontational, as usual over maritime jurisdiction areas in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean.

During my professionally and personally enjoyable and rewarding four years in Athens, I tried to  explain to my Greek friends that bilateral problems with Greece did not top our foreign policy agenda; that  we had “other regional worries”; that we did not have our eyes on even an inch of Greek territory. I added, however, that no Turkish government could agree to Athens’ raising a wall between the Aegean and the Turkish mainland. Broadly speaking, this still is the case today, the difference being our “mounting other regional worries”.

Unfortunately, our two countries have not been able to move forward on Aegean issues. But while this can for wait better  times, current disasters make it imperative for the two neighbors to cooperate in facing the challenges of climate change.

But how? This is for the competent authorities, experts of two sides to explore. I am aware of the fact that Greece is a member of the EU and can count on its support in such times of need. But  the forest fires experienced in recent weeks call for more than that. Greece and Turkey need to invest more to improve their firefighting capacity. Perhaps coordination of such investment might serve the interests of both countries. Instead of making individual purchases of firefighting aircraft Turkey and Greece can strike a better bargain if they were to act together with an eye on aerial firefighting airtankers which may soon reappear on the horizon. Greece and Turkey normally face forest fires during the same hot season. But if dates do not exactly overlap, perhaps they can help one another. Even if they were to achieve none of that, what harm is there in a process of consultations on disaster relief? After all Greece and Turkey are neighbors, they are not separated by oceans or continents.

Some might say that I am a wishful thinker; times have changed, but I have remained anchored in the past; and there is no opportunity for “climate change diplomacy” at this juncture. I am no dreamer. I am not proposing a diplomatic process under overblown titles.  And I know that such cooperation would not resolve long-drawn-out problems. But I am a believer in cooperation between neighbors, be it between Greece and Turkey, Syria and Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey. Disagreements are  well-known. So are the distinguishing features of governments. Nonetheless, it is important to identify the areas where interests incontestably converge and try to move forward. Climate change and  disaster relief are such areas.

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