Greta Thunberg's message for the Middle East at Davos

Greta Thunberg's message for the Middle East at Davos
The climate theme at Davos has enormous relevance for the Middle East, where rising sea levels, harsher droughts and increased temperatures will have a detrimental impact on shipping and oil.
6 min read
22 January, 2020
Port cities in the Gulf will be adversely affected by rising sea temperatures [Getty]
Taking place in the Swiss ski resort of Davos this week, the World Economic Forum 2020 [WEF] annual meeting was attended by participants from 117 countries. 

Focusing on sustainable development as the theme this year, the WEF 2020 also highlighted global risks due to climate change. Widely considered a business conference for the global elite crowd, it was unusual for climate change and sustainability to dominate the discourse at Davos this year.

According to the WEF methodology for surveys, global risks are defined as those that can wreak damage to several countries or industries in the next 10 years and climate change has topped the agenda.

Notably, compared to just 13 percent in 2010, around 18 percent of the Davos sessions this year were about climate and environment.

As weather-related emergencies reach a new high, economic ventures in the decade ahead will have to deal with these as regular major risks. Therefore, even though 53 heads of state, such as US President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Pakistan's PM Imran Khan attended the summit, it was young climate activist Greta Thunberg that stole the limelight. 

In-depth: Can the Middle East afford to care about the climate emergency?

Telling the participants of the World Economic Forum that "basically nothing has been done" to fight climate change, Thunberg said, "It will require much more than this. This is just the very beginning."

Looking to prevent a 'climate apocalypse' since August 2018 when she started school strikes outside the Swedish parliament, some of Greta Thunberg's fears were proven true by various climate emergencies in 2019.

Persistent in their demand for a complete and immediate end to the usage of fossil fuels, climate activists were prominent at the four-day conference, having marched three days to reach Davos.

Meanwhile, 21 of the climate activists along with Thunberg, had published an open letter in the Guardian a week before the summit, saying, "We don't want these things done by 2050, 2030, or even 2021, we want this done now – as in right now."

In recent weeks, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been hit by rainstorms, snowfall and erratic weather which is set to become a regular feature

Catastrophes such as the bushfires in Australia have made more people take things seriously. As Emily Farnworth, WEF Head of Climate Change Initiatives observed, "The visibility of the impact of extreme weather events, wildfires, flooding, has heightened awareness, what we are seeing now is the reality of what it means."

Most of the leading global economies have not been successful in reducing carbon emissions as laid out by the 2015 Paris Agreement, mainly the trade war and other politics made it harder for them to work together.

This climate action failure can have dire consequences for the global economy and even in 2020, extreme heatwaves and further destruction of natural ecosystems is expected.

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of oxo-degradable plastics is
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Therefore, time is running out.

Releasing its annual Global Risks Report just a week before the conference, the World Economic Forum had listed the top five risks as environmental and climate change related, from extreme weather to oil spills and radioactive contamination.

As Mirek Dusek, WEF deputy head for geopolitical and regional affairs said at the launch of this report, an increasingly unsettled world presents the "super-risk" required for the much-needed action.

Meanwhile, just a day before this, Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock Inc., the world's largest asset management firm, highlighted this major shift in a letter for CEOs saying that, "Climate change has become a defining factor in companies' long-term prospects."

In the past, this same firm came under criticism for promoting fossil fuel investments and staying rigid in the face of climate emergency, so this is a major change in attitude.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, the planet could heat up by 3ºC to 5ºC (5.4F to 9F) by the end of this century, this would be three times more than the biosphere can handle without serious problems, meaning that coastal cities could get inundated and rainforests turn into deserts.

Even where the Middle East is concerned, it has experienced unexpected climate in the past few weeks. Fighting climate change will be a major priority even in this part of the world.

In recent weeks, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been hit by rainstorms, snowfall and erratic weather which is set to become a regular feature.

In the last 10 years, the Middle East has faced the worst drought conditions in 900 years

Not only that, sea levels are set to rise by about 3.4mm a year globally and the World Bank has warned that 24 port cities are at risk in the Middle East, such as "low-lying coastal areas in Tunisia, Qatar, Libya, the UAE, Kuwait and particularly Egypt are at particular risk." Alongside this, there will be sea water intrusions and other agricultural risks.

In the last 10 years, the Middle East has faced the worst drought conditions in 900 years, according to a NASA report.

Most businesses will have to switch over to greener and more sustainable solutions. With temperatures reaching as high as 53.9ºC in July 2017 at the Mitribah meteorological station in Kuwait, this region has already created global records.

Temperatures are expected to rise further in the years ahead, according to a Max Planck Institute report, daily temperatures in the Middle East would be between 30ºC and 47ºC by the year 2050.

Apparently, the hottest and coldest parts of the world experience climate change faster than regions in a temperate climate zone. 

Daily temperatures in the Middle East [will] be between 47ºC and 30ºC by the year 2050

Also, Arabian Gulf waters are shallow with sea depth averaging at just 30 metres and heat up faster. Describing the Gulf region as the "canary in the coal mine", Dr John Burt from NYU Abu Dhabi says, "We have some of the hottest seas in the world in the summertime. Because the organisms have adapted to these extreme temperatures, they're very susceptible to changes."

The best outcome of the WEF 2020 would be enhanced collaboration between world leaders and business leaders to meet the challenge. There is some time left, as Borge Brende, the WEF President says in their global risks report, "The good news is that the window for action is still open, if not for much longer."

Global powers need unity to take the steps necessary to face the challenge of climate change and the WEF in Davos this year could be a turning point, given that another main focus is preventing the erosion of international solidarity.

Witnessing the ongoing global climate change might make the needed difference as 2019 has already been the second hottest year for global average temperatures with wildfires breaking out from Australia and the US to the Amazon.

Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia. 

Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi