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From “climate crisis” to “climate justice”: navigating the aftermath of Greece’s Storm Daniel

By Afroditi Koulaxi | OMC 2024

Outside a flooded property in Farkadona town, Thessaly (picture taken by the author during fieldwork).

Afroditi Koulaxi conducted an intense ethnographic study, travelling to the region of Thessaly in Greece to document the stories of individuals who were internally displaced as a result of Storm Daniel. In what follows, the researcher reflects on the “climate crisis” narrative that has shifted focus almost exclusively to the role of the environment while masking pre-existing inequalities and systemic failures that have left the region vulnerable. 

Storm Daniel in context

Storm Daniel, a severe Mediterranean tropical-like storm, struck Greece on 4 September 2023, causing extensive destruction in the Thessaly region. The region, home to 688,255 people, many of whom are elderly with lower socio-economic and educational backgrounds, experienced devastating losses. The storm’s unprecedented rainfall led to widespread flooding, infrastructural collapse, and significant property damage. The latter resulted in at least 18 fatalities, prompted over 10,000 emergency calls, and left thousands without electricity. It also inflicted considerable harm on properties, roads, and schools, profoundly impacting the agriculturally dependent and geographically isolated local population.  


During the fieldwork, I referred to displaced individuals as “climate refugees” – a term my participants unanimously rejected. Instead, I employ the term “citizen-refugees” to deliberately shift the focus from “climate refugees” to domestic systemic failures in the conversation of climate-drive displacement. This is a strategic choice, aiming to contextualise the crisis within a framework of existing structural failures and inequalities in Greece. I recognise that the environmental factors triggering displacement are deeply intertwined with political, economic, and social deficiencies. While the environmental narrative has dominated the climate change discourse, the storm in Thessaly manifested the complexity of the issue, with climate change exacerbating pre-existing inequalities, necessitating a broader, more inclusive approach to climate justice.

Unveiling state/regional deficiencies and vulnerabilities

The impact of climate change is deeply political and affects the most vulnerable (in relation to class, ethnicity and disability in our context) citizens. Rural areas, often densely populated by the elderly due to urban migration, face the slow erosion of community as younger generations are nearly absent. This demographic shift leaves behind a landscape marked by slower social rhythms and closer social bonds, yet also vulnerable to the interaction of environmental challenges and the state of abandonment. Desertification, paired with the visible remnants of historical class inequalities seen in the construction of plinth homes up until the 1950s, has disproportionately affected the most socio-economically disadvantaged.

Administrative factors play a significant role, with small communities trapped in a bureaucratic limbo where critical resources like water access and electricity are disrupted, and local governance is contested between district leaders and mayors. This contention is compounded by a classification system for houses that can often dictate the speed and nature of disaster response. This leaves residents in a state of bureaucracy ill-equipped to manage compensation claims, especially for those who have lost documents in the flooding. 

Climate justice must be seen through a political prism, where the power dynamics and governance structures that perpetuate inequality are brought to light. State deficiencies reflect a historical disregard for proactive measures, despite the area having faced similar flooding incidents in the past. Despite the availability of forecasting tools like the Extreme Forecast Index (EFI), there was a gap in translating early warnings into timely and effective response actions to mitigate the impact. Additionally, the Pineios river embankment failure contributed to widespread flooding. The impact was felt on the overwhelmed water management systems by floodwaters including wastewater plants and water supply networks.

The story of Thessaly’s struggle is a microcosm of a larger narrative, one that demands the shift of the narrative – from climate crisis to climate justice. It is a call for recognising the veiled chronic neglect and the indifference that has devastated the region. It beckons for policies that not only address environmental threats but also tackle the political and socio-economic disparities that underpin a community’s vulnerability. As we move forward, we must ensure that climate change is not employed as an obfuscating tool but as a mirror, reflecting the multi-dimensional realities we must face to address climate-driven displacement across the world.

Dr Afroditi Koulaxi is a Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science teaching on Artificial Intelligence from a social science perspective addressing issues of inequality and power. Her research explores identity and migration at the intersection of sociology, urban studies, media and communications. Her current project focuses on climate-driven displacement by delving into the immediate aftermath of Storm Daniel in Greece’s Thessaly region, focusing on its profound impact on citizenship, information poverty, and governance amidst a multifaceted climate-driven crisis that turned displaced citizens into refugees within their own country. 


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