Why climate change makes it imperative to rebuild weak states

Iraq, Lebanon and Libya face erratic power supplies and suffer from the compound effects of years of political dysfunction and mismanagement

The village of Lytton in Canada set a national temperature record of 49.6ºC (121.2 degrees Fahrenheit) on Tuesday, then burnt to the ground in a forest fire the next day. When Canada is hotter than the Arabian Gulf, something is terribly wrong with the climate. But as a heat dome envelopes this region too, the vulnerability of fragile states to extreme weather is an increasing threat to all.

Areas in the Gulf and Jacobabad in Pakistan exceeded 35ºC in wet-bulb temperature, which measures the ability of the human body to cool itself by sweating. Combining the effects of heat and humidity, this weather would be deadly for vulnerable people and those working for prolonged periods outside.

The heat domes over the Middle East and North America are only two more in the increasing chain of extreme weather worldwide, straining energy provision and life support. Last year was a record hurricane season in the US, with three of the 30 named storms – Laura, Delta and Zeta – hitting oil complexes and power lines. Disastrous wildfires struck California, and electricity had to be shut off to avoid the risk of sparking further blazes.

In February, Texas was hit by the opposite problem as Arctic air broke south, bringing a big freeze that cut off gas, electricity and water supplies for days, killing 700 people. The power grid was minutes away from a total collapse that would have taken months to restore fully.

Only twice in recorded history have hurricanes passed through the Gulf of Mexico before mid-July. Now another, Elsa, is threatening the Caribbean.

Global heating already amounts to about 1ºC above pre-industrial levels. Under current national commitments, it will reach 2.8ºC by 2100, well above the Paris Agreement’s goal of no more than 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels. The last time the Earth’s climate was like this, in the mid-Pliocene period, there was no Greenland ice cap and sea levels were 17 metres higher.

The Middle East is well-used to high temperatures and humidity. In the UAE and other well-prepared countries, most people are fortunate enough to escape with nothing more than high air-conditioning bills. But the consequences for weaker states are disastrous.

Electricity provision in Iraq collapsed on Friday. A grid which can deliver a (still inadequate) 18 gigawatts of power at best dropped to 0.4 gigawatts, also halting water supplies. Most immediately, this was the result of the heatwave, inadequate maintenance during the pandemic, a shut-off of Iranian gas and power imports, and apparent sabotage of transmission lines.

Electricity Minister Majid Hantoush, who was appointed more than a year ago, has now resigned via the ministry’s revolving door. In turn, Tehran has cut its supplies because of its own shortages and non-payment by Iraq due to problems caused by US banking sanctions.

Lebanon’s economic crisis and plummeting currency have also led to ever-worsening blackouts, as the state utility cannot pay its bills and diesel for private generators becomes scarce and unaffordable. Hospitals must ration electricity, and the provision of basic services such as using the internet or refrigeration is becoming impossible.

Iraq, Lebanon and also Libya, where electricity provision has been patchy, are suffering from the compound effects of years of political dysfunction and mismanagement. The technical solutions to their problems are well-known and straightforward enough. But their institutions are, in their various ways, unable to respond effectively.

These states are particularly weak and incapable. However, climate change and increasing incidences of extreme weather pose a threat across the wider region. Not only heatwaves but drought, shrinking rivers, drying lakes and rising sea-levels imperil people in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Iran and Pakistan. Hotter weather means more air-conditioning for those who can afford it, more strain on electricity grids and, without transformation of the energy mix, more fossil fuel consumption.

The wealthier and more capable countries can cope with high temperatures but instability, economic turmoil, pandemics and refugees from their neighbours cannot be walled off.

The oil-exporters face a double challenge. Action on climate change will cut their oil and gas earnings in the long term, reducing their resources to adapt. At the same time, global climate policy will, hopefully, avoid the worst of global warming. However, the effects will still be severe and worsening. This is particularly acute for those states that have done little to move towards low-carbon economies and have failed build up their infrastructure and save for the future.

The dangers are worsened by the political confrontations and disputes across the region. Nevertheless, countries need to work together as far as possible to cope with climate change. They may not be able to rely on much help from an outside world itself battling concurrent emergencies.

Because of its centrality to air-conditioning, water provision, basic state functions and the future energy system, electricity is at the core of climate adaptation. The GCC has made moves to aid Iraq through an link, which is under construction, to its grid, and Masdar’s recent deal to expand solar power capacity by 2 gigawatts. Water and agriculture are the other main area, requiring a complex blend of international diplomacy and local solutions.

There is only so much that outsiders can do. The climate challenge makes it imperative to rebuild the region’s shattered states, bring armed non-state groups under control and develop efficient and less politicised civil services. That would be daunting enough, without deadly summers that will soon be commonplace.

Robin Mills is chief executive of Qamar Energy and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis

Published: July 5th 2021, 3:30 AM