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January 17, 2014

The Middle East and climate change

By Arthur Scott

Today the global community is confronted by the disruptive reality of climate change- changes so drastic that coastal cities will vanish or be dramatically altered, island countries/towns may/can disappear. Rising sea levels will be accompanied by mass migrations of peoples.

This spike in climate temperature is triggered primarily by carbon emissions: refineries, cars, coal plants, and cattle raising.  Chevron’s Richmond oil refinery is California’s largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (West County News, Thursday, August 8, 2013). California is currently in drought and is literally on fire.  The three worst fires occurred in 2003, 2007 and 2008. (West County News, Thursday, August 8, 2013).  NASA reports that November, 2013 was the warmest ever recorded and “it marked the 345th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average.”  Russia also reported the warmest November ever. (USA Today Weather, 12/18/13)

Weather disasters in November were surreal:  Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines wrecked whole towns to the tune of $5.8 billion in damages, the tornado outbreak in Oklahoma cost $1.7 billion, and there was massive flooding in Cambodia estimated at a billion dollars.  The ongoing US drought is costing taxpayers estimated at $2.5 billion dollars.  January of 2014 ushered in a “polar vortex” plunging temperature across the Midwest and the Northeast.  There seems to be no end to these terrible outbursts from Mother Earth and they have enormous, socio-economic and geopolitical consequences on financially-strapped States creating what Christian Parenti calls a “catastrophic convergence” in which climate infuses and worsens the civil/sectarian crisis. (Cf., Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos)

One of the problems confronting the Middle East is that political/socio/sectarian issues tend to dominate the dialogue marginalizing the hidden “multiplier effect” of climate on stability.  Popular Middle East analyses tend to ignore the dynamics and geopolitics of climate change.  It is as though climate has no impact on sectarian violence in Afghanistan, Taliban, Syria, the military coup in Egypt, and Somalia.  A contributing factor to setting Middle East climate today consist of these historical events:  Western Imperialism and the new Middle East map, oil/ Exxon/Shell, Arab nationalism, Fundamentalism, Islamic Resurgence, 9/11 and the sectarian violence/terror /civil war it has unleashed. Each of these events along with modernity has in their own ways contributed to global warming/change in this region.

The geography/topography of the Middle East is characterized by deserts, rivers, high plateaus; mountains, straits, seas; oceans and all are affected by unpredictable climate change. The Middle East’s geopolitical sensitivity arises from its critical water arteries, through which oil flows including the Suez Canal and the straits of Hormuz. The other climatic reality revolves around water.  Major rivers include the Nile, Euphrates/Tigris and Jordan. The Nile flows through Sudan-Egypt emptying into the Mediterranean; Tigris-Euphrates originate in eastern Turkey: the Euphrates travels through eastern Syria whereas Tigris comes through Mosul heading to Shatt-Al -Arab before entering the Persian Gulf.  The Jordan River’s mouth is at the strategic Golan Heights starting at Lake Tiberius and ending in the Dead Sea. Water, water, water is the overwhelming need in the Middle East even trumping oil, and its lack or scarcity puts tremendous pressure on the fragile ecology and politics of the area.

Afghanistan, for instance, since 1960 has experienced intensifying drought conditions.  The river that runs through Kabul serving 3 million people has been reduced to a trickle.  Drought has destroyed the agrarian economy of Afghans leading farmers to switch from grain to poppy which requires little water.  Afghan farmers today produce most of the world’s demand for poppy because of these severe climatic conditions.  Politically, poppy has become a major issue between the Taliban and the Karzai/US government with the former defending its growth accounting for its expanding popularity in the countryside.  In all probability climate change, drought/poppy will lead to Taliban re-emergence once American withdrawal from Afghanistan has been completed. (Cf, Parenti, Tropic of Chaos, Chp.9.)

Syria, too, has been impacted by climate change. Climate has a “multiplier effect” intensifying the civil war/ sectarian violence that has gripped its culture” pushing Damascus into the category of a failed state.  From 2006-2011, Syria was in a serious drought that impacted farming: crop failures rose 75 % and 85% of livestock died.  Ten million rural Syrians were affected and many of them abandoned their farms and headed for the cities putting tremendous pressure on an already fragile infrastructure weakened by a large Palestinian/Iraqi refugee presence.  All of these factors coalesced at Daras in 2011 leading to protest, civil war, sectarian violence.  The current regional conflict pits Shiia against Sunna, Gulf States against Iran/Hezbollah, and Christians against Muslims as Bashir attempts to survive.  The social consequences have been horrific: 100,000 killed, marked by an additional 2 million refugees and 2 million homeless. (Cf., William R. Polk, “Climate Change and the Syrian Civil War”, Atlantic Monthly, September, 2013).

Egypt is another country vulnerable to climate change, exercising subtle influence on its “Arab Spring”.  The military has dominated Egypt since Nasser and is skeptical of civilian rule and its ability to govern let alone manage climate. Of deep concern is the health of the Nile Delta which constitutes the economic heart of Egypt, 15% of Egypt’s GDP. (http://www.adaptationlearning.net/project/adaptation-climate-change-nile-delta-through-integrated-coatal-zone-management).  The Delta is where most Egyptians live, including Alexandria, Damietta, Rashid and Port Said. A sea rise of only 0.5 centimeters would have a devastating impact on shipping, tourism, manufacturing, and fishing. (http://climate.org/topics/international-action/egypt.html). The other troubling matter is that the Nile Delta is both Egypt’s agricultural breadbasket and fishing capital. Thirty percent of the population farms and one-third of its fish comes out of the Delta. 
http://www.grida.no/publications/vg/climate/page/3088.aspx).  As Christian Parenti points out: “in Egypt, food is a volatile political issue. After all, one in five Egyptians live on less than $1 a day and the government provides subsidized bread to 14.2 million people in a population of 83 million. Last year, overall food-price inflation in Egypt was running at more than 20 percent. This had an instant and devastating impact on Egyptian families, who spend on average 40 percent of their often exceedingly meager monthly incomes simply feeding themselves.”(http://www.thenation.com/article/162143/soaring-food-prices-wild-weather-and-planetful-trouble#).

Another volatile country racked by climate uncertainty, is Somalia, located along the horn of Africa. Somalia has been in a state of turmoil for some time; famine, endemic poverty, decades of violence, no stable government.  Adding to their social crisis was a crop failure in rice, maize and wheat which fell by 10 percent. Food scarcity has led to the death of 50,000-100,000 Somalis.(http://www.globalissues.org/article/796/east-africa-food-crisis#Mediacoverage). Its political situation has worsened with the emergence of al-Shabab (the Youth), a militant, Islamic group connected with Al -Qaeda.  Its goal is to overturn the Provisional Government and turn Somalia into a base for a global jihad against the West.  Al-Shabab was responsible for the terrorist attack on a Nairobi Mall in retaliation against Kenya for opposing it.  Some of its members have been recruited from America.  The film “Captain Phillips” provides insight into the Somalia crisis as it treats of the desperation of the Somalia Pirates to survive made more difficult by overfishing in its waters by modern, technical countries.

The Middle East, like other parts of the world, is in the powerful grip of climate change, a phenomenon which will bring more instability and uncertainty into the region, as water needs, rain amounts, desertification and and food scarcity  become more endemic from the “Butterfly Effect” of erratic weather patterns.  The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) describes the Middle East as the most vulnerable area in the world.  For instance, if temperature rises by 4 degree Celsius, the Middle East will experience a water shortfall of 20-25%, impacting the whole region and exposing people to water scarcity and to flooding. Making matters worse by 2050 these Middle East/North Africa countries Qatar, Bahrain. Kuwait, Tunisia, and United Arab Republic are ranked among the top five countries at risk for sea level rise. (http://www.nytimes.com/cwire/2011/06/23/23climatewire-a-region-with-big-climate-vulnerability-and-32441.html?pagewanted=all)

Unfortunately the burden of climate falls on the poor south, countries/populations that neither have the resources nor the infra-structure to respond to these crises.  This creates a profound inequality between rich/poor nations.  Typhoon Haiyan in Philippines’ is a powerful illustration. (Cf, NYT, International Sunday, Nov.17.20-13)  If the status quo about climate remains among the leading polluters:  the United States, China, India, Russia, sea levels will rise, forcing people to move.  It is estimated that there are 214 million migrants today and 405 million by 2050. The movement of peoples is from south to north or poor to rich. This is played out in Europe in which North Africans are moving into Europe just as many Latinos are moving northward toward the United States creating a strong backlash in each region. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6228236.stm)  The impact of climate on the Middle East will continue to accelerate unless the world community can reach agreement about peace, controlling carbon emissions and implement sustainable practices. 

Arthur Kane Scott is Professor of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the Dominican University of California and Fellow of American Institute of International Studies.