Turkey: wildfire crisis exposes weaknesses of the strongman approach
Unprecedented wildfires in Turkey led to criticisms of the government’s apparent lack of preparedness and fuelled perceptions that Turkey’s authoritarian government is out of touch. The government responded to criticisms in predictable fashion, by blaming political opponents for starting fires, dismissing criticism as ‘fake news’ and investigating social media users. Turkey’s poor response, and its enduring failure to ratify the Paris Agreement, show that effective climate action requires open civic space, because governments will be more likely to act when people are able to voice their demands for change.
It’s been a summer of fires and floods across the northern hemisphere. A surge of extreme weather events of the kind that once were rare have laid bare the present-day reality of climate change. In just a handful of weeks, severe floods struck not only Germany and Belgium but also China. North America recorded its hottest-ever June and around 500 people are thought to have died due to an extreme heat wave in western Canada. Wildfires reached an unprecedented level in July, raging in Cyprus and Siberia as well as North America, and there was no let-up in August with apocalyptic scenes in Greece, Italy and Turkey.
In Greece, Athens was surrounded by a ring of fire and thousands had to flee the island of Evia. At least eight people died as the inferno, the hottest on record, swept along Turkey’s southern coast.
Asking questions in times of crisis
The existential threat of climate change requires that civil society, governments and businesses work together. But even if it sometimes makes for uncomfortable partnerships, civil society needs to continue to challenge the harmful economic and political policies that are pushing the world to the brink.
In countries experiencing extreme weather, people need to know that their governments are doing everything they can to protect them and handling emergencies as efficiently as possible. For this to happen, civil society needs to keep pushing governments to do their best. In times of crisis, it is more important than ever that people are able to ask tough questions, hold decision-makers to account and make sure that the lessons are learned for the next time extreme weather strikes.
In Turkey, which experiences fire every summer, the authorities clearly were not well prepared for a particularly severe start to the fire season. Turkey has no dedicated fire-fighting aircraft, which caused major delays as the government had to ask for these from elsewhere; delays were compounded by reported initial government reluctance to seek help from European Union countries, rather than from less well-equipped allies such as Azerbaijan, Iran and Russia. People were understandably upset and questioned whether the government had done everything it could.
But Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan does not like it when people ask uncomfortable questions – which is why academic freedom has consistently been attacked. Turkey’s trajectory under Erdoğan’s rule has been remorselessly authoritarian. In recent years, thousands of journalists, people in civil society and anyone suspected of being opposition supporters have been detained merely for expressing opinions that the government didn’t want to hear, and over 100,000 public sector workers have been dismissed from their jobs and vilified as ‘terrorists’. Social media is tightly policed, and in 2020 alone, thousands of people were investigated for their online posts.
Little surprise then that rather than get to grips with the problem, Erdoğan looked for enemies and blamed his usual targets. Government ministers first tried to suggest that Kurdish separatists started the fires. Erdoğan then turned on the opposition, accusing them of political point-scoring when they asked about preparedness and response, and then blamed the mayors of towns close to the locations of the fires.
Climate emergency makes a strongman look weak
The problem for Erdoğan was that people were pointing their fingers at him. People asked why the government had money for grandiose infrastructure projects but not for firefighting. When Erdoğan visited the badly affected city of Marmaris, his idea of helping those made homeless by the disaster was to throw packets of tea at them from a moving bus. The stunt, evocative of President Trump’s crass hurling of paper towels at crowds of Puerto Ricans following the devastating 2017 hurricane, was instantly mocked on social media. The moment offered a rallying point for suppressed dissent to be expressed in a country where insulting the president is a frequently prosecuted crime. Erdoğan has always positioned himself as a strongman, but the crisis made him look weak and out of touch, and helped compound dissatisfaction not only with the repression of political and civil rights, but also with high inflation and unemployment.
The government reacted more quickly to criticism than to the crisis. The government’s communications head immediately rubbished social media criticism as ‘fake news’, but evidence kept coming of a government detached from its people, when a ruling party mayor promised new houses so good that those who had not been made homeless would wish they had been. As the political misfires continued, so did the repression. TV companies were warned to stop providing live coverage of the fires on the grounds that it ‘demoralises’ people; here was climate denial in practice. With due irony, the government was at least able to put one of its customary instruments of repression to better use, when water cannon usually deployed to disperse protesters were turned on the fires.
Even as the fires finally died down, helped by rain, investigations were underway against people who had used the #HelpTurkey hashtag to call for international assistance. This seemed to offer an affront to the sense that Erdoğan has promoted that Turkey is a strong nation. The government claimed #HelpTurkey was a campaign ‘orchestrated from abroad’ and said people were using the hashtag to ‘humiliate the Turkish government’. The government encouraged people to use the hashtags #StrongTurkey and #WeDontNeedHelp instead. In an authoritarian state, merely asking for help can make you a target.
No climate action from authoritarian leaders
When people sought international help, they only acknowledged the reality that the impacts of climate change have no respect of borders and the crisis can only be tackled by concerted international action. Erdoğan could make a start by finally ratifying the Paris Agreement, six years late; Turkey is currently the only G20 member not to have done so. He could also commit to reverse the practices of land exploitation for economic gain that likely helped create the perfect conditions for wildfires and to involve communities more in the management of fires. These steps are however harder than his default option of blaming other people and locking them in jail.
Climate change can only be tackled by putting people first.
Climate change can only be tackled by putting people first. When people can question and scrutinise their governments, they can hold them to account on climate progress. The great wave of protests that swept every inhabited continent in 2019 put pressure on governments and made climate action a higher political priority – but such protests are dangerous in Turkey. As Erdoğan’s dismal response to the fires shows, authoritarian leaders are not going to solve the climate crisis. Here’s yet another reason to get rid of them.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government of Turkey should launch an independent inquiry into the causes of the fires and its preparedness.
The government should cease all investigations of people who criticised its response to the fires.
The government should immediately ratify the Paris Agreement.
Cover photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images