Entering a Dangerous Phase in Climate Change: What Does It Mean for the Middle East Region?

  • Dr. Shishir Upadhyaya
    Associate Professor, American University in the Emirates Dubai, UAE
Environment & Sustainable Development

Entering a Dangerous Phase in Climate Change: What Does It Mean for the Middle East Region?

2023: The Hottest Year on Record

In July this year, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres raised alarm when he stated, “Climate change is here. It is terrifying. And it is just the beginning. The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived.”[i] Calling for swift climate action, the secretary-general added that “the extreme impacts of climate change have been in line with scientists’ “predictions and repeated warnings”, and that the “only surprise is the speed of the change.”[ii] Indeed, climate scientists believe July 2023 was the hottest month in 120,000 years, with over 10,000 records of temperature and rainfall broken globally.[iii] In 2015, world leaders established a goal of restricting the maximum increase in the average global temperature to 1.5 degree Celsius above preindustrial global temperatures as a crucial ceiling to avoid climate catastrophe; however, in July, the average global temperature breached that level, albeit briefly. Clearly, 2023 is on track to be the hottest year on record ever. What does this mean for the world and how does it impact the Middle East region? This article examines the likely impact of these changes globally in general and in the Middle East in particular and discusses what could be the way ahead.

The impact of the rapid increase in global temperatures is already being seen in the form of unprecedented natural or climatic disasters such as bigger floods, widespread droughts, intense cyclones and frequent massive forest fires in regions where they were almost unheard of. For instance, in Europe the extreme heat this summer led to hundreds of wildfires in Greece. While many of these fires were put out quickly, some spread out of control, such as the one in the Alexandroupolis and Evros regions of northeastern Greece — near the border with Turkey — which reportedly was the biggest the European Union has ever recorded, claiming over 20 lives.[iv] According to the European Union-backed Copernicus Climate Change Service, firefighters from five countries battled to contain the fire that lasted 11 days and destroyed over 800 square kilometers of forest land — an area larger than New York City![v] Greece was not the only location to witness such fires; earlier in the year, wildfires in Canada razed territory equal to the size of Greece! In another event, temperatures in excess of 51 degrees Celsius recorded in parts of southern Iran forced the government to declare a two-day public holiday, advising people to stay indoors.[vi]

Higher temperatures recorded globally means that the warmer atmosphere can now hold and deliver greater precipitation. This explains the recently recorded heavy rains causing widespread destruction in many cities. For instance, in July, Beijing saw the heaviest rains in 140 years, bringing the city to a halt. About 31,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes and almost 20,000 buildings were inspected for damage while both airports in the capital cancelled more than 200 flights.[vii] During the same time, heavy rains resulted in massive floods in northern India, with New Delhi recording its ‘wettest July day in more than 40 years,’[viii] according to authorities and local reports. The rains also triggered flash floods and landslides, killing at least 22 people, mostly in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh. The same warm and wet conditions in the entire region in Asia also precipitated the worst ever outbreak of Dengue fever in Bangladesh that reportedly killed over 1,000 people and infected over 208,000, overwhelming the country’s healthcare system.[ix]

The above list of climatic disasters is not exhaustive and includes various other recent disasters, such as the major floods in New York that cost the city about $19 billion in damages[x] and the September floods in Libya. Overall, it is clear that extreme climatic events are becoming more intense and frequent. And many of these events, once regarded as once-in-a-lifetime occurrences, are now recurring annually. Although major climatic disasters have occurred in various places globally, they have rarely been reported from the same places repeatedly. For instance, a major heat wave in Europe last happened 500 years ago. Floods in New York were reported once in 250 years.[xi] Furthermore, in the United States, the number of billion-dollar disasters has increased from two in 2002 to 18 in 2022 and 15 until July 2023. As global temperatures rise, the chances that extreme climatic events will recur at the same location are growing rapidly. It is likely that by 2050, many countries will experience flood levels annually that until recently were seen once in a century.[xii] Seeing these as isolated incidents or ‘freak events’ does not fully explain the situation because when natural disasters occur in the same area again and again and more frequently, the combined effects of such events can often be greater than the sum of their parts. For instance, repeated droughts in Syria precipitated a collapse of the economy leading to a political crisis. This is discussed later in the article.

Approaching a New Normal

It seems that a new normal for the climate has been established and we now need to adapt to it, particularly in the cities where more than half of the world’s population or about 4.3 billion people live. Pertinently, in the Middle East more than 80 percent of the population now lives in urban areas.[xiii]  Accordingly, governments must now focus on adjusting to the new reality by upgrading infrastructure to withstand extreme weather, else the ongoing scale of climate related disasters could cause widespread damage. Already, as described above, the intensity and frequency of climate related disasters in major cities across the world such as New York, Beijing and New Delhi seems to have overwhelmed existing infrastructure efforts. While countries with poor infrastructure are likely to be impacted the most, even the ‘best prepared’ countries in the world do not seem to be ready to face climate change in the twenty-first century. Take, for instance, the Netherlands. Geographically, one-third of the country is located below sea level, with the lowest point being 6.7 meters below sea level. Yet the country has not just survived floods but continues to flourish thanks to the world’s most advanced and extensive system of dikes, pumps and artificial embankments along the coast. But in July 2006, the country witnessed its warmest month ever in its history, resulting in about 1,000 fatalities.[xiv] Since then, the Netherlands has faced several heat waves, with several deaths being reported. Evidently, no country in the world is prepared for all the vagaries of climate change. 

Reaching Tipping Points

According to climate scientists, our greatest worry is about reaching ‘tipping points’ or potential rapid disruptive effects that could trigger massive impacts. For instance, the melting of ice in Greenland alone could rapidly raise sea level up to six meters, eventually ‘drowning Miami and Manhattan and London and Shanghai and Bangkok and Mumbai.’[xv] Pertinently, Greenland is already losing almost a billion tons of ice daily. Since 2014, scientists believe Greenland and the Antarctic are more vulnerable to melting than previously known, and perhaps a tipping point has been reached with respect to the ice sheets in Western Antarctic more than doubling its ice loss in five years. According to Peter Brannen, an award-winning science journalist, the last time the earth was four degrees warmer, there was no ice at either pole and sea level was 260 feet higher![xvi]

The other tipping point could be the melting of the Arctic permafrost, which could lead to the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases that include methane and carbon dioxide, which could further accelerate global warming. Significantly, methane is far more dangerous as a GHG than carbon dioxide. Evidently, atmospheric levels of methane have risen significantly in recent years, and a new study reveals that by 2100, the Arctic will have released a hundred billion tons of carbon, which is the ‘equivalent of half of all the carbon produced by humanity since industrialization began.’[xvii] Finally, rising global temperatures could even lead to the reversal of the Gulf Stream, a warm current flowing from the Equatorial region to the middle latitudes in the Atlantic Ocean. The Gulf Stream acts as a great circulatory system that essentially regulates and modulates the temperature of the planet. How does this work? The waters of the Gulf Stream cool off in the atmosphere of the Norwegian Sea, making the water itself denser, which sends it down into the bottom of the ocean. This body of water is then pushed southward by more Gulf Stream water and melting ice from Greenland falling to the ocean floor, replaced by warm currents flowing from the Equatorial region; the entire trip can take a thousand years. A reversal of the Gulf Stream could be catastrophic for large parts of Europe and North America, as it could lower temperatures by up to 10 or 15 degrees in Europe and lead to rising sea levels in the eastern U.S.[xviii] While precise tipping points are not yet known, scientists believe these are not very far. The greatest worry is that each of these points could lead to a ripple or cascading effect. For example, the melting of ice in Greenland could dilute the salinity of the Atlantic Ocean, which could hasten the reversal of the Gulf Stream. Clearly, there is a sense that the window to respond to or adapt to these threats is small and that calls for urgent action by all countries.

Based on the above, it is evident that the world is now entering a ‘dangerous phase’ in climate change. The question is: how does it impact the MENA region, which is already among the planet’s hottest and driest regions? According to climate forecasts, a ‘business-as-usual’ approach to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could lead to average global temperatures rising by over 4 degrees Celsius by 2100.’[xix] However, since temperature changes are unevenly distributed around the planet, with some regions experiencing more warming than others, experts warn that the MENA region could be subjected to a temperature rise of up to 4 degrees Celsius by 2050 and up to 7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Already, a visible pattern of climatic distress can be seen emerging across the MENA region revealing inherent vulnerabilities in certain countries, particularly the poorer states with an agrarian economy as compared to the oil-rich states of the region. For example, in 2020, heavy floods affected Egypt, Iran and Tunisia while in the same year, wildfires spread in Lebanon, Syria and Turkeye. The next summer brought a crippling drought in Iraq and Syria – its worst in 70 years. It really can’t be a coincidence that many of these countries are also facing internal political turmoil. For instance, Syria spiraled into civil war in 2011, following a major drought from 2006 to 2010, which triggered a collapse of the agricultural economy, resulting in the mass migration of millions of refugees across the region.[xx] Manifestly, repeated climatic disasters in the same place have a multiplier effect making a bad situation worse as noted by the U.S. president Barack Obama who stated: “Climate change helped fuel the early unrest in Syria, which descended into civil war.”

Evidently, there is a link between climate change and security. According to the World Economic Forum report on global risks, climate action failure can lead to extreme weather events that could cause food and water shortages, leading to mass migrations, which would potentially lead to interstate border conflicts, and so on. The following chart shows how each threat is closely related.