Two years ago, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, conservatives and right-wingers were quick to deny any possible link to global warming.

"As if any reputable expert believes this is in any way connected," huffed Andrew Sullivan on his well-known site.

To his credit, Sullivan admitted just two days later that he may have blogged too soon, and said that experts such as Kerry Emmanuel had in fact linked global warming and more powerful hurricanes. In the years since, Sullivan has stopped questioning the reality of climate change, and called for a carbon tax.

Now we have an unprecedented outbreak of fire in Greece, and once again some are quick to insist that no connection can be made between drought, wind, record-breaking heat — and devastating fires.

Scientists aren’t so sure. Nineteen different climate models predict that the subtropic zones, such as the American Southwest and south Greece, including the Athens area, will become hotter, drier, and more likely to suffer drought as global warming intensifies.

"It’s a big deal. The tropics may be expanding and getting larger,” says study co-author Thomas Reichler, an assistant professor of meteorology at the University of Utah. “If this is true, it also would mean that subtropical deserts are expanding into heavily populated midlatitude regions.”

Droughts and unusually dry conditions in recent years in the subtropical American Southwest and Mediterranean Europe may be related to expansion of the tropics, he added in a press release last year.

But although the underlying conditions in Greece this summer have encouraged fire, Greeks themselves have worsened matters.

After what is now considered the worst outbreak of fires since at least the 1880s in Greece, according to a backgrounder by Ian Fisher of the New York Times, suspicion has focused on an unholy alliance between the conservative government and developers, who in the past have used fire damage to enable construction.

Veteran reporter Tracy Wilkinson of the Los Angeles Times explains:

Among the most insidious triggers, according to officials and environmentalists, is a practice by unscrupulous builders of deliberately setting fire to forests to render the land available for development.

Greece is the only country in the European Union that does not have a forest registry. Once a forest burns down, the legal status of the land also goes up in smoke. Absent records, designating the land for reforestation is too difficult, and it is often up for grabs. In some cases, developers have moved in with the help of corrupt officials.

"Historically, this is a very big problem," said Demetres Karavellas, chief executive of the Greek branch of the World Wildlife Fund. "There is no doubt that at least some of the fires this week were due to arson linked to property development."

Already this suspicion has led to demonstrations and spontaneous riots; now the government itself — which has hinted that terrorists could be to blame for the fires — is sinking in the polls as it faces a suspicious and angry electorate, due to vote on Sept. 16 in a national election.

Regardless of the political outcome, a great deal of damage has already been done, as the photograph below — nominated for several awards — shows. (Photo: stephmel via flickr.)

Greece