The Middle East’s Climate Crisis Is a Glimpse of the World’s Future

The COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow that wrapped up Saturday was intended to draw the world’s attention to the slow-burning emergency of global warming, as well as create policies for mitigating and adapting to its worst effects. Above all, however, the international gathering illustrated the problems of timing and collective action that frustrate efforts to stop climate change. 

At the summit, world leaders, scientists and activists called for urgent action to reduce emissions and slow the rise in average global temperatures before the world crosses a threshold into an unlivable future. Instead, the conference delegates drafted what amounts to a series of strategy statements, with lofty goals but only a few specific targets. Taken together, the Paris Agreement and COP26 have done important, but only incremental, work to reduce hydrocarbon emissions. 

When it comes to tackling climate change, the Middle East represents a more extreme version of the collective action problems on display in Glasgow. The Middle East’s climate challenges require both immediate emergency interventions and long-term strategic plans, as well as transnational collaboration at levels that are currently inconceivable given the sharp political divisions within and between the countries in the region. In short, the Middle East’s politics simply cannot, at present, address a slow-moving transnational crisis like climate change, even though it affects everyone in the region. 

And that’s despite the fact that the Middle East is living the world’s bleak climate future today, with its people already experiencing the punishing environmental impact of a world powered by oil and other fossil fuels. The region’s economy depends almost entirely on oil, even as its population arguably suffers more than any other from the direct and indirect effects of rising temperatures. 

But if the impact of climate change on the Middle East is awful for the people who live there, it is for the time being survivable, which means that more and more people continue to live under inhumane conditions.

The world should study the Middle East’s climate predicament closely, because the region is also on the leading edge of multiple intertwined crises that interact in a vicious cycle with climate: weak states, degraded environments, unequal societies and economies that are unsustainable in the long term but unreformable in the short term. Every one of these factors is also in play in the wealthier parts of the world. If the world’s rich countries stick to their current paths, even taking into account the reduced energy and hydrocarbon use targets announced at COP26, they will most likely end up in the same position that the Middle East finds itself today.

The most obvious obstacle to the political response to climate change is the time-horizon problem. Political systems tend to respond to urgent crises like armed conflict, while deferring action on long-term issues like water resource management. But even when those long-term problems become so urgent that they overlap with the political calendar—as, for example, in summer 2018, when the water crisis in Basra toppled the Iraqi government—the problems themselves can prove so complex that political elites don’t even attempt a solution.

The trajectory of richer and more stable countries in the Middle East on climate change highlights the additional dangers of distraction, and the diversion of money and effort into militarism and avoidable conflict. The Gulf monarchies have the resources—and increasingly, the interest—in crafting long-term strategies on issues of importance to them, including climate change. Like their neighbors, Iran and Iraq, they possess oil reserves and are experiencing rising temperatures. But the similarities stop there. Iran and Iraq have large, poor populations, and governance in both countries has dramatically deteriorated after decades of sanctions and conflict, respectively. In contrast, the Gulf states have used their oil profits to establish stable governments and effective public services, and they are actively seeking to diversify their economies. The United Arab Emirates and its Gulf Cooperation Council peers have taken climate change seriously for years. On the eve of COP26, Saudi Arabia announced a plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. That deadline is probably unrealistic, but like the other targets set in Glasgow, it could generate steady progress.

The problem, however, is that even the regional governments with well-formulated strategic plans to address climate change still end up diverting time and resources to wasteful conflicts in the region and sometimes farther afield. Saudi Arabia and its allies continue to fight a war in Yemen that is unlikely to achieve any of its stated aims, and wasted billions on a diplomatic feud with Qatar that ended without any change to the status quo. And even during COP26, although Riyadh showcased its acumen through sophisticated negotiations over the risks and equity concerns of asking poor countries to shift their economies away from carbon, it also launched a new destabilizing economic blockade of Lebanon. In practice, just as water flows downhill, the Middle East’s political systems gravitate toward conflict—even, it appears, preferring to invent new points of friction rather than contend with a long-term governance problem like climate changes and its corollaries. 

People who live in the Middle East already experience the discomfort of withering outdoor temperatures. And their countries rely on food imports because the land increasingly cannot support agriculture. For the people who live in the Middle East’s literal hot zone, the dystopian future has arrived. But governments in the Middle East still prefer to pick political conflicts that offer a compelling short-term narrative, rather than address the existential question of climate change, a decidedly mundane policy issue with boring, long-term, multisectoral and multinational solutions that don’t easily lend themselves to demagoguery or generate easy political capital.

Paradoxically, because all countries around the world participate in the oil economy that drives climate change—whether as producers or consumers—and every country suffers from climate change despite the uneven distribution of its impact across the globe, there is little political incentive to make tough but necessary reforms. The countries of the Middle East not only burn a lot of hydrocarbons, they also lead the world in selling them. And there is no realistic scenario in which they will forfeit the revenues of selling those fossil fuels so long as there remains a profitable international market.

The elusive holy grail for climate action is international solidarity midwifed by visionary governments, along with creative thinking that transcends borders and combines private industry’s expertise with public resources. But on our current course, the world’s future will look much like the Middle East’s hot, frightening present.

Rights Roundup 

The United States held a strategic dialogue with Egypt, drawing criticism from rights groups who accuse the Biden administration of overlooking serial human rights abuses by the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. While top Egyptian officials met with their U.S. counterparts in Washington, back in Egypt authorities proceeded with high-profile prosecutions of prominent human rights defenders, including the writer Alaa Abdel Fattah and the former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh.

Top Read 

An investigation by The New York Times revealed that the U.S. military covered up a U.S. airstrike against the Islamic State during the group’s final stand at Baghouz, Syria, that might have killed up to 70 civilians. The report adds to the newspaper’s growing body of investigations into the U.S. military’s flawed and apparently sloppily observed targeting policies. It follows previous Times reporting into a high-profile drone strike on Aug. 29 in Afghanistan that killed an aid worker whom the Pentagon had falsely claimed was an Islamic State operative. The scoops about both incidents required costly, resource-intensive, independent reporting. In an era when news organizations are shrinking, the Times reports reinforce the crucial importance of independent journalism, providing a rare and much-needed corrective to government narratives, which have been misleading and often outright false when it comes to the civilians killed by U.S. airstrikes.

Thanassis Cambanis is a senior fellow and director of the international policy program at The Century Foundation in New York. He teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. His books include “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story,” “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions,” and four edited volumes about politics and security in the Middle East. He is currently writing a book about the Iraq war’s global impact. His Twitter handle is @tcambanis.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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