What it takes to protect UAE's distinct 'Olive Highlands'

The plants and animals found here, my friend argues, represent the survival of species
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - MAY 25: Hajar Mountains, Emirate of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

High in the Hajar Mountains, southwest of Fujairah, is a little known region of high ridges that a friend of mine, geologist and naturalist Gary Feulner, has nicknamed the "Olive Highlands".

Crowned by clouds for much of the year, reaching up to just over 1,000 metres and covering a mere 13 sq km, the highlands are home to distinctive plants and animals, many of which are found nowhere else in the Emirates. Among them are around 500 specimens of wild olive trees. Only two other are known elsewhere in the country, high on the slopes of nearby Jebel Jabsah.

The plants and animals found here, my friend argues, represent the survival of species that would have flourished in the wetter climates of the past, perhaps 6-10,000 years ago, during what has been called the "Climatic Optimum". As the climate changed, plants, butterflies and reptiles migrated upslope into a shrinking habitat.

The "Olive Highlands" are our own local laboratory for studying the effect of historical climate changes. There are many other places like them.

The evidence of climate change that we see today is not unique. These processes have happened earlier and they have been documented long before it could have been possible to blame humans.

Climate change is not a figment of overexcited imaginations. Increasing desertification; the retreating of glaciers; the collapse of Arctic and Antarctic ice-shelves, the small but detectable rise in sea level – these are a reality.

By accepting the reality of climate change, it is also necessary to recognise that it has the capability to alter our living environment. The potential negative effect could be enormous, from rising temperatures that could devastate global food production to changes in sea levels that could flood the homes of countless people, including here in the Emirates.

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Climate change is not a figment of overexcited imaginations. What action can we take?

What action, though, can we in the UAE take to deal with this? How can the UAE, a small, hot and arid country, take meaningful action that can contribute to a slowing down and then, perhaps, to a reversal of the global process?

An assessment of the affect of man-made causes comes into play here and we need to tackle those issues and find solutions. The use of clean energy, such as solar power and the development of other forms of new technology to reduce emissions of harmful gases is especially relevant.

As a leader in the field, the UAE has an important role, helping develop technologies that can also be used by other countries. Recently hosting a regional meeting on climate action, Abu Dhabi is helping to galvanise the region in this effort.

People in their individual capacities can also contribute, like by planting more trees, including mangroves that can act as a carbon sink, or by adopting any number of energy-saving habits. Whether it is switching off lights when they’re not needed, or taking other steps towards a more environmentally-friendly way of living, there is a need for all to play a part.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, March 16, 2021.  Hazy and overcast weather at Abu Dhabi.  Eastern Mangroves area.
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
FOR:  Stand Alone/ Big Picture

Action on the broader topics requires commitments from governments and industry. While action in the former may have the greatest direct effect on a global scale, smaller steps can inspire others to follow suit.

The extent to which individual states and populations will view the climate challenge as urgent will vary from country to country. For example, a rise in sea levels is more of a threat for small island-nations in the Pacific or for those who live in our coastal cities than it is for, say, Switzerland, Nepal or Bolivia. Equally, the affect of increased desertification will be felt more in the Arabian peninsula or in the sub-Saharan belt of Africa than in the Congo basin. And a decision to move away from reliance on fossil fuels will affect Detroit or Rio de Janeiro or Dubai more than remote rural areas where motor vehicles are still relatively uncommon.

Ultimately, the responsibility for taking action will fall on countries that are more advanced. The UAE recognises our share of that responsibility and is right to be taking the issue seriously.

As we move towards the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference, Cop26, due to be held in the Scottish city of Glasgow in November, the future of the "Olive Highlands", and much else besides, depends on the action we take today.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture

Peter Hellyer

Peter Hellyer

Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National