The Mediterranean as We Know It Is Vanishing

From Saint-Tropez to Amalfi, the region’s most attractive tourist destinations are also its most vulnerable.

By , an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy, and , an intern at Foreign Policy.
Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.
Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.
Vacationers sit on the beach of Kallithea in northern Greece on July 22. SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP via Getty Images

The Mediterranean is known for its lush beaches and winding coastline—and now also its cataclysmic climate extremes, which have transformed the region into one of suffocating heat, raging wildfires, and shrinking rivers.

For weeks, Mediterranean nations have been gripped by a brutal medley of heat and drought that has disrupted agricultural production and devastated communities. Spain and Portugal are facing their driest conditions in more than 1,000 years while wildfires in Greece and France have forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes. Across the region, rivers are drying up, leaving power supplies in limbo, and thousands of people have died from the heat.

“Climate change kills,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said as temperatures climbed in mid-July. “It kills people, as we’ve seen. It also kills our ecosystem, our biodiversity, and it also destroys the things we as a society hold dear—our houses, our businesses, our livestock.”

The Mediterranean is known for its lush beaches and winding coastline—and now also its cataclysmic climate extremes, which have transformed the region into one of suffocating heat, raging wildfires, and shrinking rivers.

For weeks, Mediterranean nations have been gripped by a brutal medley of heat and drought that has disrupted agricultural production and devastated communities. Spain and Portugal are facing their driest conditions in more than 1,000 years while wildfires in Greece and France have forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes. Across the region, rivers are drying up, leaving power supplies in limbo, and thousands of people have died from the heat.

“Climate change kills,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said as temperatures climbed in mid-July. “It kills people, as we’ve seen. It also kills our ecosystem, our biodiversity, and it also destroys the things we as a society hold dear—our houses, our businesses, our livestock.”

The Mediterranean’s apocalyptic scenes are some of the clearest examples of how the climate crisis is already upending life around the world and is a harbinger for what could await others. It is also part of a stark global pattern: In the United Kingdom, record-breaking heat has melted roads and forced the government to declare a national emergency. The American West has been baking under an acute heat wave and drought, coastal communities on the east coast of Australia are at risk of washing away, and extreme flooding in China has displaced hundreds of thousands of people. 

“What’s really kind of undisputedly different is that this sort of temperature is happening everywhere,” said Lisa Schipper, a research fellow at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. “It’s not just in Europe.” 

Although sweltering summers aren’t abnormal in the Mediterranean, which has a drier climate to begin with, human-fueled climate change has made extreme events like heat waves and droughts even more intense, long, and frequent. The region—which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has deemed a “climate change hotspot”—is now heating up 20 percent more rapidly than the average world rate, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. 

“It’s not just warming, but it’s a combination of warming and drought and the fact that this pushes us beyond regional limits of sustainability for the agricultural system,” said Wolfgang Cramer, research director of the Mediterranean Institute for Biodiversity and Ecology. 

The recent heat wave has hit farmers across southern France, Greece, Spain, and Italy, which are all witnessing lower yields and subsequent losses. Coldiretti, the Italian farmers’ association, said one-third of Italy’s farms are now being forced to produce at losses due to the global food crisis and ongoing drought. To add more fuel to the fire, one Italian region has now become a locust breeding ground due to its dry climate and is now facing its worst ever locust invasion in three decades.

Beloved Mediterranean staples like wine and olives haven’t been spared either. In Spain, local vineyard farmers are ringing the alarm bells as wildfires char their grapevines while others are struggling to produce half of what they previously did. Andalusia, in southern Spain, which is the world’s largest producer of olive oil, is at a high risk of drying up as farmers fear the lack of irrigation—costly in itself—compounded by depleting reservoirs may affect both the quantity and quality of their yield.

According to the European Commission, severe drops in precipitation have increased drought hazards and water scarcity in Italy, Greece, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Iberian Peninsula. As temperatures heat up, Italy’s longest river, the Po—which is used to irrigate local crops, such as rice and corn as well as wine—is now running dry. In the south, Morocco is expected to reach total water scarcity by 2030. 

To mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis, many European countries have pledged to adopt robust policy measures, with the European Union mandating climate neutrality by 2050 and a 55 percent drop in net emissions by 2030. The world is facing a “moment of truth,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared in 2021. “It’s not a question of 30 to 40 years. It’s now. It’s this decade where we have to get better, otherwise we risk to reach irreversible tipping points.”

The war in Ukraine and the resulting energy crisis, however, have complicated these efforts. To cope with Russian gas cutoffs and eye-watering prices, Italy, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands all announced in June that they would restart their coal power plants. But if such temporary measures become permanent, experts warn they would set back global efforts to combat climate change. 

“The danger is short-term solutions can easily become long-term solutions,” said Brian Hoskins, a professor at Imperial College London. 

Dwindling water supplies have only compounded these ongoing energy challenges, especially for nations that depend on nuclear power. France receives roughly 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants, many of which rely on rivers for cooling. But many of those shrinking rivers are now also too hot to be used, further jeopardizing the country’s already strained energy supply. “A significant part of the nuclear power plants in France have been stopped because of the warming and the drought,” Cramer said. 

As climate change drives sea level rises, experts warn that Mediterranean communities could face a particularly worrying future. According to one report, the region’s sea level could rise by as much as 25.6 centimeters by 2050—threatening approximately one-third of the Mediterranean’s population who are concentrated along its coastal regions as well the region’s multiple UNESCO sites, including the city of Venice and the early Christian monuments of Ravenna. From Saint-Tropez to Amalfi, many of the Mediterranean’s most attractive tourist destinations, bustling with residential and commercial activities, are also its most endangered ones. 

“Even though there is nothing flashingly visible, we can still say that it has exerted a lot of pressure in this sense,” said Grammenos Mastrojeni, the senior deputy secretary-general at the Secretariat of the Union for the Mediterranean, on climate change’s impact on environmental migration in the region. “We are seeing that communities are adapting and resisting, and they are becoming more and more aware of the challenges.” 

But if sufficient state action isn’t taken—and the crisis continues to deepen—experts warn that the world could face a climate future that is increasingly difficult to cope with. 

“We often say that the Mediterranean could be seen as a microcosm for the world because we have so many different situations everywhere,” said Lina Tode, deputy director at Plan Bleu, a regional activity center under the United Nations Environment Programme. “Many people say if we can solve the Mediterranean, we can solve the world.”

Christina Lu is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

Anusha Rathi is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @anusharathi_

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A view of the Russian Central Bank headquarters in downtown Moscow on May 26.
A view of the Russian Central Bank headquarters in downtown Moscow on May 26.

Actually, the Russian Economy Is Imploding

Nine myths about the effects of sanctions and business retreats, debunked.

Taliban fighters wait as people gather for a ceremony to raise the Taliban flag in Kabul.
Taliban fighters wait as people gather for a ceremony to raise the Taliban flag in Kabul.

The Taliban Detained Me for Doing My Job. I Can Never Go Back.

FP’s columnist on a harrowing return to Kabul, almost one year after the United States left Afghanistan.

A man walks past a closed store of the Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo in Moscow on June 8.
A man walks past a closed store of the Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo in Moscow on June 8.

Russian Sanctions Are Working but Slowly

Moscow’s military capabilities are being ground down, piece by piece.

Men stand atop a wooden platform over a muddy river holding a long pole down into the water.
Men stand atop a wooden platform over a muddy river holding a long pole down into the water.

Ghana’s ‘Success’ Exposes the West’s Toxic Development Model

Standard theories of global progress continue to be largely limited to raw extraction.