Could Climate Change Be the Arab World's Biggest Threat?

A heat wave in Russia may have been the catalyst behind the Arab Spring. What happens if the world's major food exporters – the United States and Europe – are faced with a long-term drought?

Juraj Mesík
Juraj Mesík
A palm tree grows in the Errachidia reservoir near the Ziz oasis, Morocco, March 7, 2009.
A palm tree grows in the Errachidia reservoir near the Ziz oasis, Morocco, March 7, 2009. Credit: Reuters
Juraj Mesík
Juraj Mesík

In December, delegates from around the world will meet at the United Nations conference on climate change in Paris. The hope is that the global community will achieve an agreement that would limit global warming, ensuring that global temperatures do not rise more than 2 degrees Celsius beyond pre-industrial era temperatures.

Unfortunately, Earth's climate does not seem to be impressed by conferences. It has been 20 years since the first United Nations Climate Change Conference in Berlin and 18 years since the Kyoto Protocol, but atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide – the main greenhouse gas – has increased at an accelerating pace. Never in the history of the human species has there been so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

No country will be spared the consequences of climate change, but data indicates that nations in the Middle East and North Africa are by far the most vulnerable. Yet, judging from their positions at climate change conferences, it would appear their leaders are largely ignorant of this key risk to their future. One would expect Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria and other arid countries to put all their weight behind proposals to limit climate change. But instead, they negotiate alongside countries with little climate consciousness such as China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, as part of the Like Minded Group of Developing Countries.

Why is the Arab world the most vulnerable to global warming? For a whole complex of serious reasons: It is already extremely arid and mostly desert, and is heavily dependent on imported food to sustain its fast-growing population. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, all Arab countries – from Morocco in the west to Oman in the east – had to import more than half of the calories needed to feed their people even before 2010. Since then, the situation has worsened: The most extreme seems to be Yemen, whose 26 million people are already 90% dependent on imported food.

Climate change-induced droughts will make situation much worse. Some 400 million people in the Arab world are fully dependent on food – wheat in particular - imported from the United States, Canada, EU, Ukraine, Russia, Argentina, Australia and a handful of other countries in moderate climate zones. All of them are already exposed to the effects of climate change, a process that will continue. When an unprecedented heatwave hit western Russia and destroyed one-third of the Russian harvest in 2010, global food prices increased 40% within the next 7 months, triggering what is now known as the Arab Spring. When a similar event – or, even worse, a long-term drought – hits the United States, the most significant wheat and corn exporter in the world, the increase in global food prices will be even worse. In the worst case, a bad harvest in the United States, Canada or Europe will trigger a famine in a large part of the Arab world.

There is no guarantee that even a radical, fast reduction in greenhouse gas emissions may stop further warming of our planet. Science does not have a solid answer, and models suggesting that only a 2 degree Celsius increase is still possible may be overly optimistic. We may well be already committed – and some say we actually already are – to a much greater increase in global temperatures than we want to consider: temperatures similar to those in the Pliocene period, 3 million years ago, when atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were similar to current levels but global temperatures were 3 to 4 degrees Celsius warmer, and sea levels were 5 to 40 meters higher than they are now.

This is not an argument for giving up serious and quick cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, but the upcoming UN climate change conference in Paris may well be our last chance. Arab countries can and should contribute much more to such efforts. They can do it on a diplomatic field, joining progressive negotiation groups such as Alliance of Small Island States, which is demanding much more radical global action than is currently under consideration. And they also can significantly reduce their own emissions. After all, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are among the 20 largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita. At the same time the Arabian Aquifer System, on which the remaining food production of Gulf countries depends, is already the most overstressed in the world, and their capacity to produce food is shrinking fast. Leaders of the Arab world may feel that as long as they have oil, they are safe. It is an illusion. The story of 26 million Yemenis teetering on the brink of famine should warn them all.

Juraj Mesík is a former specialist with the World Bank. He teaches about global challenges at Comenius University in Slovakia and Palacky University in the Czech Republic.

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