The MENA region is literally heating up
The Middle East and North Africa region has many problems: The Arab-Israeli conflict, the situation in Yemen, the Qatari crisis, growing Saudi-Iranian tensions, the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and civil war in Syria, to name a few of the woes.
The issue of climate change is not high on the collective or individual policy agenda of countries in the region. Substantive and material policies to address climate change are almost non-existent. In decades to come, however, climate change may prove to be the biggest threat to the economic, social and political stability of the region.
On June 29, Ahvaz in southern Iran registered another high temperature of 53.7 Celsius which is just below the 54.0 Celsius recorded in Mitribah, Kuwait on July 21, 2016. Such temperatures are becoming increasingly common.
Experts warn that, by 2100, Gulf countries may become inhospitable. This is a serious problem for a region where fresh water is scarce and summers are getting warmer and longer with rainfall becoming rarer.
A more worrying prospect is that some analysts see a correlation between conflicts in the region and the seemingly changing climate. They point to inadequate government handling of a sustained drought in Syria as a trigger for the country’s civil war in 2011. Of course, deep political and economic grievances played a role and it would be simplistic to cite climate change as the source of the troubles in Syria. However, a study in 2015 from Columbia University in New York found that climate change was a major stressor.
Syrian government policy encouraged water-intensive crops, such as cotton, with the hope that this would increase exports. This policy was not necessarily fatal and was ambitious. However, unregulated and illegal drilling of irrigation wells depleted groundwater reserves, which put Syria’s agricultural industry on its knees in a country where agriculture accounted for about 25% of the economy.
It is estimated that the region has warmed 1-1.2 degrees Celsius since 1900, which has reduced rainfall in the wet season an average of 10%. This is a pity in a region known in antiquity as the Fertile Crescent — an area covering large parts of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon — where it is believed that human civilisation, with the birth of agriculture, commenced 12,000 years ago.
Despite this dark outlook, the scientific consensus is that the damage can be greatly mitigated through governmental policies and action. Such measures require political will and good governance and enforcement.
However, there has been no policy instrument, treaty or charter at the Arab League or intergovernmental level to conceive any strategy to address the problem. There was no major Arab League or Arab state involvement at the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen and there is very little participation at other summits or conferences.
At the UN World Climate Change Conference in November 2016, hosted by Morocco, 18 of the 22 of the Arab League’s members were absent. This policy inertia is largely because of the fact that the Arab League, for many years, has elected Saudi Arabia to represent the collective views of the Arab group at the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The result has been that those Arab countries lack representatives, negotiators and policy-makers to contribute at the international policy table.
On one hand, having Saudi Arabia, a major oil-producing nation, as the key representative makes little sense when there is little incentive to clamp down on the use of fossil fuels. Saudi Arabia, however, can point out that man-induced climate change and the situation were not caused by the Arabs. The situation was caused by heavy industrialisation in the West.
Climate change may be an international problem but it is a direct product of Western industrial progress. All Arab League countries combined produce only 4.2% of global emissions of greenhouse gases, says a World Bank study. That is 4.2% across an area larger than the European Union both in size and population. Even then, 85% of all emissions within that overall 4.2% figure comes from six Gulf countries and not the wider Arab world.
Viewed from this prism, perhaps the biggest climate injustice is that the MENA region faces the biggest threat from the climate change problem — a problem not created by the MENA region.