Climate change is already visible in the Middle East and this is already motivating some to take action against the ravaging of the environment. One of them is Wael Hmaidan, who started as a Greenpeace campaigner in Lebanon in the 1990s and now heads the Climate Action Network, an umbrella organization representing over 1,700 NGOs.
According to Mr Hmaidan, there are encouraging signs that the Arab World is recognising the scale of the challenge after a long period of shrugging of the clear harbingers of disaster. But, he says, the road ahead is still long.
The Middle East is likely to be among the worst-hit regions in the world. Researchers estimate that by the middle of the century, the region will experience 80 extremely hot days – up from 16 abnormally warm days now. Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest hub on the Mediterranean coast, is slowly being inundated by thick layers of sludge while Iraq – a stretch of land once known as the “land between two rivers” – is plagued by catastrophic droughts that are drying up its riverbeds.
“In countries like Iraq, where temperatures [this year rose] close to 60 degrees [Celsius], the government had to stop functioning and took extra holidays,” Mr Hmaidan said. “This is already having economic repercussions and leading to stress and instability.”
The latest example is the city of Basra, where deadly clashes broke out last month over unsafe access to water, intermittent power and a lack of government services.
“We have so far had a warming of one degree and we are already seeing huge implications: increased forest fire, hurricanes, typhoons, droughts, crazy summer temperatures in Europe,” Mr Hmaidan said. “If it reaches two degrees we will lose all coral reefs in the world, for example.”
This, he said, will have disastrous repercussions on the marine resources within this ecosystem and consequently affect the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on it.
According to the expert, either the Middle East can take advantage of the economic opportunities deriving from a shift towards green energy, or it will be left with “an asset that nobody wants.”
“We must be off fossil fuels by 2050 and we have 32 years now to make that transition. The more they delay it the harder it’s going to be,” Mr Hmaidan said.
“The challenge is that they are not linking [these phenomena] to climate change, they are not linking them to the fossil fuels that come out of the region and [recognizing this] as part of the problem,” Mr Hmaidan said.
The Lebanese environmentalist conveyed his message at an international gathering at Chatham House in London recently, during which he spoke on behalf of the Climate Action Network. The meeting came on the heels of a scientific report by the UN International Panel on Climate Change that established the need to stay below the 1.5C temperature increase and warned of the implications of going beyond that.
The UAE is among the GCC countries engaged in international climate change discussions and at the forefront of the race to adopt new technology. Morocco, one of the early adopters of renewable energy in the MENA region, is on track to meet its goal of powering 42 per cent of its energy need from non-fossil resources by 2020. Even Lebanon, a country otherwise paralysed by sectarianism and political deadlock, voted to build the first large-scale wind farms in the country.
“Renewable energy costs are going down so fast – and renewable energy is our best solution to climate change. We now see it competing with fossil fuels in every corner of the world,” Mr Hmaidan said.
But the rise of far-right and populist parties in Europe, as well as the election of climate-sceptics of the calibre of Donald Trump in America and perhaps Jair Bolsonaro in Brasil on Sunday, among others, is threatening further political action.
In the light of the recent political developments, the role of grassroots movements such as the ones that the Climate Action Network represents has never been more important.
“What is missing is political will – and political will comes from social will,” Mr Hmaidan said. “The most important thing that citizen can do is to make sure that climate change is always in their tweets, posts, hashtags – we have to make it an electoral issue and it can only become [that] if citizens worry enough about it.
“We are investing a lot in our kids’ upbringing for them to be good people in a functioning civilization, but in 50 years there will be no functioning civilization if we don’t solve climate change,” he added. “People need to know that kids now don’t have a future. This is why it should be a priority for everyone."