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Can Climate Change Teach Middle East Leaders How to Be Friends?

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Fire in Kabylie, east of Algiers, on August 11, 2021 - which Algeria blamed on Morocco and Israel
Fire in Kabylie, east of Algiers, on August 11, 2021 - which Algeria blamed on Morocco and IsraelCredit: RYAD KRAMDI - AFP

The wildfires in Israel, Turkey, Algeria and Morocco are either out or under control. But they were extraordinary enough in scope and speed of spread to alarm experts, and the big takeaway from these and all the other extreme-weather events the world has suffered in the recent weeks is that the impact of climate change is not something our children and grandchildren will feel but is upon us already.

That’s bad enough because, as the United Nations made clear in its latest report on climate change, the process is already locked in. Even if greenhouse emissions are drastically cut, much of the impact will be “irreversible" for centuries. In other words, the kind of wildfires that have made headlines over the last several weeks are going to be the new norm.

This in  turn means that, above and beyond getting serious about the long-term threat, governments will have to adjust to a new era of chronic weather crises.

This is a double disaster for the Middle East. Not only it is more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, but its governments are supremely unprepared to deal with its short-term consequences.

We got a small taste of that during the wildfires. Turkey is rated on the global Climate Change Tracker as “critically insufficient” (the lowest category) in terms of action and measures to meet the 2015 Paris climate accord targets. It didn’t have the equipment to fight the fires, even though the problem is hardly something new. Its authoritarian and hyper-nationalist leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was reluctant to accept help from the most obvious source, the European Union, and for political reasons rejected any assistance from Greece, which is well-equipped with fire-fighting means. Of course, Greece had wildfire problems of its own.

By regional standards, Turkey is a pretty wealthy and developed country. When you look elsewhere around the Middle East, the situation only looks bleaker. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are to one degree or another failed states, without governments that can begin to address the technical, political and money costs of coping with climate change in the long run or its fallout in the short run. The only Arab country in the Middle East and North Africa that has taken any serious action is Morocco – which Algeria has meanwhile blamed, together with Israel, of being behind its wildfires

The Gulf oil states have the money to cope with climate change and are relatively well-run, stable regimes, but their commitment to measures is more about public relations. They are investing in renewable energy and raising their global profile as leaders in tackling climate change, but it’s more show than substance. They remain heavy users of oil and gas, and Saudi Arabia has lobbied to water down global efforts to put a brake on fossil fuel consumption.

Reversing global warming is going to entail major sacrifices and lots of trade-offs, with big winners and losers. Even in Western democracies, it’s going to be a challenge to navigate the process. In the Mideast, where the give-and-take of democracy is mostly non-existent and governments’ hold is often precarious, no leader wants to take political risks to pursue the long-term goal of avoiding environmental disaster, even if he had the resources to do it.

Russian Bombardier water-dropping plane crashed in southern Turkey during a fire-fighting mission, August 14Credit: - - AFP
Smoke rising from fire in Algerian hillsCredit: RYAD KRAMDI - AFP

“Unlike many of the other vectors of turmoil in the region, which are largely political, the dangerous effects of climate change are foreseeable and non-discriminatory. Only stable, transparent governments that value the lives of all populations can prioritize repositioning their societies to minimize the avoidable outcomes of climate change and protect against those that are inevitable,” writes Yara Asi, a fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC.

No less an obstacle is the complete absence of regional cooperation. Forget small, one-off challenges, like cooperation in fighting wildfires. There’s no way Iraq can address the structural threat of permanent drought without collaborating with Turkey and Iran. Upstream damming by these two has reduced Iraq’s surface water by a third.

The disastrous warming of the Persian Gulf can only be solved if all the countries along its shores can work together.

But, as Michael Mason of the London School of Economics Middle East Center explained in a recent online lecture, no such cross-border mechanisms exist. The Arab League has a handful of fora for ministers to discuss environmental issues, but as a multinational institution, the league is a zero (when was the last time Israel took an Arab League threat seriously?). No one is even trying, much less failing, to cooperate on a regional basis. And, given the deep antipathy and distrust that exists between many Arab countries, it’s hard to conceive of that happening anytime soon.  

“Imagine pulling together a group of Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and Syria to cooperate — it’s really, really hard,” Jay Famiglietti, executive director at the Global Institute for Water Security, recently told Arab News. Frankly, it’s almost as hard to imagine Iran sitting down with Saudi Arabia or Egypt with Turkey or Syria with Jordan.

If you want to defend the region’s lack of climate change action, it’s that the Middle East by virtue of its being so economically underdeveloped isn’t a major source of greenhouse gases. Indeed, the Arab countries that have signed on to the Paris accord conditioned achieving their (fuzzy) emission-reduction targets on getting financial and technical help from the rich world.

That’s not an unfair demand, since it’s the industrial powers that in the main created the climate change problem to begin with.

But the Middle East can’t afford to wait for climate justice: Without or without help, it is going to suffer badly unless it gets its own act together. Is it possible that as the four horsemen of apocalyptic climate change have begun riding across the region that might happen? It’s now or never.

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