Can the Middle East afford to care about the climate emergency?

Can the Middle East afford to care about the climate emergency?
Political and economic difficulties affecting the region could mean that climate change is a low priority for many of its ordinary citizens, but things are changing, Gaia Caramazza has found.
9 min read
10 December, 2019
Small grassroots movements are emerging in Gulf countries to demand climate change action. [Getty]
Public opinion around the world is rightly panicked about the climate emergency, but despite being projected to be among the hardest-hit regions by global warming, Middle Eastern governments and citizens have been late to take interest, let alone act.

Climate change is already affecting the Middle East and North Africa, and in dire ways. 

"It will cause extreme heat to spread across more of the land for longer periods of time, making some regions unlivable and reducing growing areas for agriculture. Cities will feel an increasing heat island effect and most capital cities in the Middle East could face four months of exceedingly hot days every year. Rising temperatures will put intense pressure on crops and already scarce water resources, potentially increasing migration and the risk of conflict," according to the World Bank.

Recent developments, however, suggest attitudes in the region are changing and quickly.

Last week, the annual UN Climate Change Conference (COP) kicked off in Spain, providing environmentalists, including those from the Middle East, with a space to discuss and raise awareness on the perils of climate inaction.

As the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2016 report warned of a 2020 deadline to take action before temperatures rise to unmanageable levels, this year's conference could be a watershed moment, especially for the region.

While some question the effectiveness of such international multilateralism in an increasingly polarised world, Julien Jressati, senior campaigner at Greenpeace for the Middle East and North Africa, argues climate conferences remain some of the most beneficial in terms of shaping public opinion, including in the region. 

"Morocco is one of the most advanced countries in the region when it comes to climate change, and that is primarily because it hosted the UN Climate Change Conference in 2016. Now it’s the only country to be aligned with the Paris Agreements of keeping global temperatures below 2 °C," he said. 

Morocco now gets more than half of its energy from renewable sources and stands as a beacon of hope. But the North African nation benefits from a relatively stable political history, and unlike many Arab nations in North Africa and the Gulf, its economy does not depend on fossil fuels, as the oil-rich countries in the gulf. 

Oil has been the Achille's heel of the Middle East and the foremost cause of global heating that has brought the world to the edge of irreversible disaster. Its extraction, treatment, and emission has caused the global temperatures to rise unsustainably but it has also often propelled the region into chaos by instigating civil wars, foreign intervention, and excessive dependency on oil revenues.

Read more: How Saudi Aramco is powering the global climate crisis

The stark reality is that 6 out of the 20 biggest oil producers in the world are based in the Middle East. These companies are responsible for more than a third of the total carbon emissions of the companies surveyed, according to a study published by The Guardian this October. 

Ironically, the high-emission Arab Gulf region, home to the world’s biggest reserves of oil, could itself be hit with "unprecedented events of deadly heat as a result of climate change" and other disasters that could devastate its environment, according to research by MIT.

Despite some small grassroots movements emerging in Gulf countries to put climate change on the agenda, with a chapter of Extinction Rebellion setting up in the region, it is hard to see such pressure being strong enough to force policy change given the centrality of hydrocarbons in these countries' economies. 

"There are some youth movements around climate change, but the pressure is not entirely coming from the bottom - systemic change from international climate change policy is going to lead countries in the MENA region to change their energy demands,” Michael Mason, Director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, told The New Arab.

"Gulf countries are more protected because they have the resources to avoid popular uprisings. They are not worried because they are rich and can pay for water, air-conditioning, and can create temporary artificial environments. However, if the international arena is devaluing those resources it destabilised their systems, as they can no longer depend on profiting from fossil fuels - That's why they diversify their economies," adds Mason.

But in other, poorer and more populous MENA countries, which are equally threatened by extreme climate conditions despite relatively not producing high emissions, there is a different dynamic at play.

Read more: Environment activist Greta Thunberg files UN complaint against Turkey and four other countries

For one thing, the countless difficulties affecting these countries could mean that climate change remains a low priority for many of its ordinary citizens. 

For example, widespread corruption and dire economic situation plaguing the region are perceived as the main challenges for Algerians (62.2%), Sudanese (67.8%), Lebanese (57.9%), and Iraqis (50.2%) amongst others, according to a study by Princeton University. In other words, the search for climate change solutions may seem like a luxury many in the region cannot afford. 

Poorer countries are often subject to conflicts and violence which results in the inability to have long-term policy plans for climate change and resource management.

The current uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq have been sparked by rampant unemployment in the region. Young people are especially affected by these economic situations, which means that younger generations are preoccupied with putting bread on their plates rather than worrying about the forthcoming environmental catastrophe. 

"Poorer countries are often subject to conflicts and violence which results in the inability to have long-term policy plans for climate change and resource management," Mason said.

"Everything is geared for short term humanitarian management. Political stability is essential for long term climate planning."

However, political stability is in short supply in the post-Arab spring Middle East and an increase in government crackdowns by authoritarian regimes has made it especially difficult for popular movements to demand environmental policy reforms, even if they wanted to put the issue on the agenda.

Yet despite these difficulties, there is a growing movement in these countries trying to push governments, institutions, and the general public to mobilise towards a greener future.

In Lebanon, it is no coincidence that the protest movement erupted right after unprecedented fires broke out throughout the country. Rising temperatures rendered the spread of the 103 forest blazes way too easy, resulting in more than 180 injuries and countless houses destroyed by the flames. 

Additionally, the garbage crisis in the country was one of the main triggers of public anger towards the ruling class.

"Regarding the garbage crisis, the corruption of our leaders means they only think about how much they can profit off of it," Ike Arzoumanian, 16, a climate activist in Lebanon told The New Arab.

Arzoumanian is on the board of the Fridays for Future climate school strikes in Lebanon. She says people are becoming aware of the very real threat of climate change.

"Lebanese people lack awareness about how important climate change is. The forest fires definitely helped raise awareness. But it is a global issue and it's not just about us in Lebanon," she said.

In truth, education on climate change or the lack thereof seems to be another obstacle to climate activism in the region, according to a study from Princeton University in the US. The study found education to be the biggest factor in dictating the public's concern with climate change in the Middle East and North Africa.

People need to be educated on this topic. I only started getting involved when I received the education about how bad the environmental situation was when I travelled abroad.

"Concerns with environmental issues – climate change, air quality, water pollution, and trash – are greater for individuals with higher levels of education, as compared to individuals with lower levels of education," lead researcher on the study, Dr. Jeremy Green, told The New Arab.

"People need to be educated on this topic. I only started getting involved when I received the education about how bad the environmental situation was when I travelled abroad," confirmed Arzoumanian

In Dr. Green's study, Lebanon was the country with the highest percentage of people concerned about the climate emergency in MENA, with more than half of the survey respondents in Lebanon, 51 percent, say that climate change is a "very serious" problem. However, in comparison with UK Polls the number is not very high - surveys by pollsters, MORI, Opinium, BEIS, say as much as 80% of the UK public are now "fairly" or "very" concerned. 

Education infrastructure in the MENA region is one of the many public services that has been affected by the region's conflicts and political instability. As a result, one in every five children in MENA is not in school, according to UNICEF.

Around 8,850 education facilities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya have been destroyed because of the conflicts in those countries, whilst "two-thirds of youth in the Levant feel that the education system is not preparing them for their future". Gender inequalities are also exacerbated by conflicts and crises, leading to many young girls dropping out of education. 

Many children the same age as Ike will thus not have the ability to go to school and could never be educated about climate change. 

Read more: Climate change, water stress 'worsening conflict' in Yemen, South Sudan

Ike says that conferences like the COP, in addition to pushing governments into action, could fill gaps and educate people on these important environmental issues, including the provision of forums outside of government’s structures. 

However, at the previous COP in Poland, attendees were excited by discussing the need for more ambitious pledges before 2020 but many were disappointed with the lacklustre commitments even though the research presented at the conference indicated that global emissions were continuing to rise.

To fulfil commitments, authorities, including in MENA countries, are required to step in to promote domestic legislation to tackle climate change operationally

The International Renewable Energy Agency said up to $148 billion yearly budget would be needed until 2050 to meet the goals of the Paris agreement in order to limit global temperature increases to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

But are governments in the region willing or even able to spend this amount on its own long-term self-preservation?

"I think the push will be externally driven, rather than internally driven," says Mason, the expert from LSE.

"International policy and less market reliance on fossil fuels will push the region to change and invest in greener energy resources."

With energy demands expected to triple by 2050, governments in the region are slowly starting to invest in much-needed renewable resources also because of prices dropping in the international markets.

Yet activists like Ike and those joining the Extinction Rebellion movement are not waiting for governments to act. As a future generation of leaders they are already fighting for better climate change policy in the region. 

To Ike, the COP conference is a forum where many can educate and in turn be educated to understand how to work towards a future that is socially, politically, and environmentally sustainable for everyone. 

But she also feels such conferences are focused too much around talking and not enough around taking action.

"I think given the carbon emissions produced by those travelling to attend the conference, not enough comes out of these meetings in order to justify it."

Gaia Caramazza is a journalist at The New Arab. Follow her on Twitter @GaiaCaramazza