As wildfires consume Greece and California, record heat strikes Algeria and Oman, and thirsty protesters march in Iraq, the face of global warming is becoming very visible.
The Middle East faces a dual danger: climatic disasters that become political disasters; and a global shift away from fossil fuels.
A paper by Will Steffen and colleagues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published last week, highlights the fears of reaching dangerous tipping points in the Earth's climate. The 2015 Paris international agreement was founded on the comfortable assumption that we can choose a target for warming of 1.5°C or 2°C globally, without further climate consequences beyond that mark.
But Steffen’s paper points out the danger of dramatic, irreversible changes. At 1 to 3°C of global warming, Arctic summer ice will disappear and the Greenland and West Antarctic ice-sheets could collapse. At 3 to 5°C, the Atlantic circulation that keeps northern Europe temperate, the Indian summer monsoon and the Amazon rainforest are threatened. Above 5°C, the winter Arctic ice and the huge East Antarctic ice-cap could melt, and the Siberian permafrost may release vast stores of carbon and methane to drive further warming.
Already the thawing Arctic is affecting the European climate, bringing cold winters but hot summers. The Mediterranean region is drying out as summer storms shift north. As such shifts multiply and intensify around the world, pressure to act against global warming will intensify. And well before we reach the more dramatic climatic disruptions, we will hit political and economic tipping points.
The Middle East is particularly vulnerable, on two counts. Firstly, it is an already hot and arid region, with an expanding population, where agriculture is running short of water. Iraq spars with Iran and Turkey, Jordan with Israel, and Egypt with Ethiopia and Sudan, over their shared rivers. Several endemic political conflicts have in some cases been intensified and shaped by the effects of climate change such as drought, and make effective regional cooperation and long-term thinking all but impossible.
Secondly, the economy is heavily dependent on oil and gas – to earn export revenues and to drive domestic industry. Even the non-oil exporters such as Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan rely heavily on remittances and aid from their neighbours.
This activity, though, is threatened in the longer term by ever stricter limits on carbon dioxide emissions, and by growing investment in non-carbon technologies that are increasingly commercial in their own right – solar and wind power, electric vehicles. Climate denialism may be most entrenched in the US, but even there a new generation of voters will think differently: 56 per cent of older Americans are worried about global warming, but 70 per cent of those aged 18 to 34. Carbon-heavy economies may face growing international condemnation, including tariffs on their exports, investment freezes, even boycotts and sanctions.
A Fitch report this month argued that by 2050, the GCC states would have achieved their aim of diversifying their economies away from hydrocarbons. But 2050 is both too far and too near. It seems a long way off, and indeed we are likely to see serious climate disasters and non-carbon energy both multiply much earlier.
Yet it is not long to turn around a whole economy: it is only as distant from today as events that seem quite recent, including the 1988 US congressional hearings that led into the Kyoto protocol, and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Power stations, oil platforms, airports and beach-front property built today will still be around in 2050.
Mena’s progress to date has been patchy and far from sufficient: the introduction of renewable power is picking up, and energy subsidies have been cut in most countries to drive efficiency, but efforts remain well behind most of the world. Ambitious diversification plans have been unveiled by the GCC states, but tangible progress is limited outside the UAE.
To cope with coming climate turmoil, the Mena countries need to move ahead on the four fronts of energy, economy, resilience and politics. On energy, they need to use their intense solar endowment fully, and develop the supporting system – battery storage, reverse osmosis desalination, and exports of solar electricity or synthetic fuels. Saudi Arabia has offered Iraq 3000 megawatts of electricity from a new solar plant to assist with its power crisis.
At the same time, they need to adapt their petroleum industries to a low-carbon mode, by developing more gas and solutions such as carbon capture, storage and use for valuable new products. Such policies can support the economic goal of diversification, vital for reasons of employment, equity and stability that go beyond climate justifications.
Mena states need to be resilient to much more dramatic climate shifts and disasters than the mild changes embodied in current planning: severe droughts, cut-offs of food imports, rapid rises in sea-level.
Finally, on politics, it is hard to be optimistic about regional cooperation, but there are no unilateral solutions to issues such as rivers or climate refugees. The Middle East faces many common challenges, that will be magnified by climate change, but can also be addressed by cross-border investment, conflict de-escalation and strong multilateral institutions. The region’s conflagrations will burn even hotter, unless nations can work together to douse them.
Robin M Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis