23 Mar 2022

Without urgent action on climate change, the Middle East will become uninhabitable

Dr. Yossi Mekelberg

It was not that long ago – to be accurate, before the coronavirus pandemic struck the world with particular viciousness – that there was a real sense that the world was coming together in acknowledging and internalising that differences should be put aside if the international community wishes to rise up to the challenge of global warming. A pandemic later, and more recently a needless and very bloody military attack by Russia on its neighbour Ukraine, climate change has been pushed down the global agenda once again. Also worryingly, the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, where crucial decisions were taken regarding the achievement of net-zero carbon emissions, by now seems no more than a distant memory of a world coming together to tackle the most momentous challenge it is currently facing.

Regardless of any other developments, the need for a unified effort to stop global warming has not changed. It is a massive task to confront such an unprecedented threat to global stability and prosperity, and nowhere is the need for action more urgent than in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Scientists have warned that if the trend of rising temperatures in the region continues, it could become too hot to sustain human life by the end of the century. In other words, a region that is currently home to around 547 million people, a figure which is expected to rise to 724 million by 2050, will become uninhabitable. Last summer, many parts of the MENA region recorded more days of soaring temperatures in excess of 50 degrees Celsius than ever before, which led to severe droughts and burning forests, putting immense pressure on the power grid and causing prolonged blackouts.

Northern Oman was hit last summer by Cyclone Shaheen, reportedly the first tropical cyclone to reach so far west into the Gulf. In recent years, Jeddah and the holy city of Mecca suffered from untypical flash floods. On the other side of the Arabian Gulf, in Tehran, it is estimated that up to 4,000 people are killed every year by air pollution, while other parts of the country suffer from sweltering temperatures and droughts. According to the World Bank, climate change will mean extreme heat affecting more areas of MENA and for longer periods, shrinking the land available for agriculture as rising temperatures put intense pressure on crops and the availability of water. Such unviable conditions are bound to lead to increases in large-scale migrations and the risk of conflict, even wars, in addition to health hazards associated with air pollution and ever-rising temperatures. And we are already witnessing some of these phenomena.

There are signs, however, of growing regional awareness and a sense of urgency in addressing climate change and global warming. For instance, an initiative by the government of the United Arab Emirates to convene at the end of March this year, the first ever edition of the Middle East and North Africa Climate Week, is an important step forward. This gathering aims to provide a stage for governments, cities, private sector leaders, financial institutions, and civil society organisations to explore the challenges and opportunities that climate change presents and translate them into action plans.

By now the writing is on the wall (though it can be argued that it has been there for a long time): The way we address global warming could be the make or break of the region. The summer of 2021 provided a stark reminder of the changing climatic conditions across the region. It was not just an exceptionally warm one, but one that demonstrated the trend of a much faster rate of warming than the rest of the world – twice the global average in fact. This has caused scientists to believe that by 2050 temperatures will be 4 degrees Celsius higher in the MENA region than the benchmark of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, as set by the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 and reiterated during COP26. This leaves the region with its work cut out to come together in order to prevent ecological disaster and with it a protracted social, economic, political and humanitarian crisis, and possible catastrophe.

Like most of the world, the Middle East is playing catch-up in its response to global warming. However, despite some pockets of resistance in different quarters, with people who either deny that climate change exists or admit that it exists but refuse to believe that it is caused by human behaviour, there is almost universal agreement, supported by robust scientific evidence, that climate change is happening, that we humans are responsible for it, and if we do not or will not live up to the challenge it poses with the utmost commitment and sense of urgency, it will likely bring an end to planet Earth as we know it. Consequently, international efforts must concentrate on driving an action plan that mitigates the exacerbated climatic conditions through reducing emissions, supporting those already impacted by climate change, financially facilitating countries to deliver on their climate goals, and collaborating regionally and globally to keep rising temperatures at bay.

In the Middle East and North Africa, evidence of the impact of global warming and its effect on communities and societies is staring everyone in the face. For instance, Alexandria, a vital port city in Egypt which is home to 5 million people and a UNESCO World Heritage site, is gradually sinking as a result of an 11.3-centimetre rise in sea level in just 100 years. This increase is dramatically impacting the northern Nile Delta region, an area with big lakes, tourist resorts, historical sites, fertile agricultural land, and three other major cities in addition to Alexandria: Rosetta, Borolus and Port Said. In recent years Alexandria has been subjected to intense torrential rainfall, adding to fears of flooding and erosion. The World Bank already warned in 2016 that the MENA region is particularly vulnerable to climate change, as it is one of the world’s driest and most water-scarce regions, with a high dependency on climate sensitive agriculture, and a large proportion of the region’s population and wealth creation located in urban coastal areas, which are susceptible to floods.

There is an understandable focus on the impact of climate change on the habitats which surround humans, and how it is affecting our environment and resulting in physical hardships, in terms of natural disasters and access to resources. There is less attention to the social and political damage produced by this phenomenon. After all, politics is the mechanism by which scarce resources are distributed, and when disasters strike, and/or places become uninhabitable, populations either emigrate or challenge the government bodies who they expect to be their protectors and providers. In most cases, climate change exacerbates already existing domestic difficulties such as political instability, poverty, and access to scarce resources.

Former US president Barack Obama has claimed that climate change-related drought “helped fuel the early unrest in Syria, which descended into civil war.” This adds a security dimension to the negative impacts of global warming. Syria’s agriculture has previously enjoyed climate conditions that with government support produced ample quantities of staple food crops. However, a number of prolonged droughts, most recently in 2006–2010, which according to researchers from NASA and the University of Arizona was the longest year-on-year drought for 900 years, combined with heatwaves and scarce rainfall, resulted in desertification, causing 75 percent of Syria’s farmers to suffer from total crop failure and 85 percent of livestock to die in the five years leading up to the outbreak in 2011 of Syria’s ongoing civil war. As a result of nature hitting hard, and government mismanagement which subsidised water-intensive crops like wheat and cotton while supporting inadequate irrigation techniques, land devastation was significant, and triggered the displacement of 1.5 million people within Syria even before the first bullet in this war was fired. A country that had suffered from a repressive regime for years but was nevertheless stable, was hit by considerable internal migrations of farmers and herders who had lost their livelihoods and went to try their luck in the cities, where there were already large numbers of Palestinians and Iraqi refugees who were suffering from deep economic insecurity. Most experts agree that while this was far from being the only reason for the conflict in Syria, it turned out to be a “multiplier and amplifier of the political crisis that was building up,” as was asserted by Staffan de Mistura, the former UN Special Envoy for Syria.

Conclusive evidence of the unsustainable rising temperatures in the Middle East and North Africa and the dire consequences for nature, livelihoods, the economy, and increasingly for political stability, has led countries in the region not only to take notice, but also to take action and ownership of the problem and show leadership in efforts to contain and reverse its devastating impact. The next two COP summits will be hosted in the region, this year by Egypt, and by the UAE in 2023. In the meantime, the UAE has committed itself to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, while Saudi Arabia has set itself a target of net zero by 2060, as pledged by Saudi Aramco, the national oil company which is also one of the world’s biggest.

This welcome change of language is partly due to leaderships recognising the opportunities in moving to a greener economy, rather than seeing it as a blow to oil-producing countries. Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, announced that the UAE will invest 600 billion dirhams ($163 billion) in renewable energy, while Saudi Arabia, despite being a leading oil producer, pledged 700 billion riyals ($187 billion) to climate action only this decade, expecting that by 2030 half of the country’s electricity will come from renewables. In addition, the Kingdom also committed to plant 10 billion trees over the coming decades to overcome desertification, reduce emissions and build, as was announced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a new city, Neom, powered by “100% clean energy.”

In October of last year, Qatar, the country with the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world, launched a national climate change action plan with the ambitious aim of achieving a 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, while pledging to reduce the “carbon intensity” of its liquefied natural gas facilities within the same period. In another sign that global warming is being taken seriously, Qatar’s government has announced the establishment of an environment and climate change ministry to tackle the issue. Other countries in the region such as Iraq and Oman have also committed themselves to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Israel, on the eve of COP26, announced plans to reduce its emissions to net zero by 2050, which will include rolling out green infrastructure and developing carbon capture and storage technology, while declaring climate change a national security interest.

For a region whose countries include major oil and natural gas producers, all of this means that sustainable development will require the diversification of their economies, and in a rather short time, for which some of them are better prepared and equipped than others. Much of this is about conceptual adjustment as much as political, social, and practical changes. Climate change is both a global and regional issue, and only by moving towards cooperation at both levels can it be tackled successfully. It is imperative that the domestic, regional and global war on global warming is carried out through coordinated, especially designed mechanisms that not only address holistically the curtailing and elimination of the impacts of global warming but, as far as MENA is concerned, that do so without hindering development in a region that is also experiencing the world’s fastest population growth, and hence needs to square many circles in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while creating more jobs and addressing food scarcity and water shortage. This is a challenge of the highest order, but one that can be met if all forces are pulling in the same direction in terms of policies and sharing resources.

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