The Power of Deserts
Climate Change, the Middle East, and the Promise of a Post-Oil Era
Dan Rabinowitz

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INTRODUCTION

The Heat Is On

The towering granite mountains of South Sinai, home to the Jebaliya Bedouin tribe, also host the Greek Orthodox monastery of Santa Katerina, built in the sixth century by Byzantine emperor Justinian. A Jebaliya legend recounts a drought centuries ago, so long and bitter that the tribe’s survival was at stake. Desperate, the elders sought help in the monastery. The council of monks heard their plight, prayed, and came up with a remedy: a parchment scribbled with some foreign text. “Take this scroll,” the bishop told a Bedouin youngster, “climb Mount Sinai, and place it at the top so it is visible from the heavens.” Turning to the elders, the clergy then proclaimed: “God willing, the sacred verse will open up the heavens. Soon water will pour down the mountains, filling wells, reviving pastures.”

The boy clutched the parchment and embarked on the ascent, but halfway up the mountain he had a change of heart. Instead of making for the summit, he headed towards a creek where his family had a home and pastures and placed the precious scroll there. He then descended to the monastery to inform the others that his mission was accomplished, keeping the exact location where he put the scroll a secret.

Heavy rains did pour that night, but only on the ravine in which the parchment lay. Too small to hold the gushing torrent, the gorge soon flooded, sweeping the young man’s family, their home, and flock to horrid death. Forty days of mourning followed, after which the tribal elders made a somber vow: never again would any member of the Jebaliya tribe defy an edict issued by the monks.

Acknowledgment of human vulnerability to nature’s wrath is a familiar trope in Middle Eastern lore. The Sumerian odyssey of Gilgamesh, written almost 5,000 years ago, has Utnapishtim saving kin, livestock, and plants by sailing in a reed boat to escape a flood, a feat for which he earned eternal life. The tale of the great deluge recorded in the Old Testament two millennia later likewise had Noah loading animals and plants onto an ark to avert calamity. Jacob’s dozen sons escaped famine-stricken Kena’an to look for sustenance in Egypt. The youngest, Joseph, later rose to prominence in Pharaoh’s court by accurately predicting seven lean years and by advising Pharaoh to stock up on grain, which saved the kingdom.

These legends underscore prescient leadership. Utnapishtim and Noah learned of the impending floods through divine revelation; Old Jacob realized early enough that a drought was coming Kena’an’s way and that salvation for his offspring was awaiting on the Nile; Joseph’s premonitions came in dreams. But prescience was not enough: all the protagonists in those ancient myths were persuasive leaders too, convincing their peers that danger was approaching and successfully mobilizing their respective communities for timely, costly efforts to attain deliverance. The Jebaliya legend adds solidarity as an essential value: to avoid disaster, it suggests, people must put their collective interests above narrow individual considerations.

The Middle East has seen numerous climate fluctuations in the Common Era, some of which left evidence behind. A warm and dry period in the first century was reflected in textual records and material relics.1 A warm spell in the sixth century is believed to have expedited the fall of the Roman empire,2 and a climatic shift early in the second millennium decimated Europe’s agricultural output, pushing bankrupt peasants to become crusaders and colonize the Holy Land.3 A dry spell that hit the region in the 14th century, concurrently with Europe’s Little Ice Age, forced villagers to abandon sedentary agriculture and become nomadic pastoralists,4 a migration which transformed the Muslim world, energized the Ottoman expansion westwards, and sent shock waves across Europe.5 In the 17th century a long dry spell in southeast Turkey brought the Ottoman Empire to the brink of implosion.6

Unlike earlier episodes, contemporary global warming is anthropogenic. The Industrial Revolution created a formidable dependence on fossil fuels for manufacturing, locomotion, and power generation. As Homo sapiens morphed into Homo sapiens combustans,7 vast amounts of CO2 emitted from burning fossil fuels intensified the atmosphere’s greenhouse effect, gradually warming the planet.8 And while earlier climate events crept up on humans unannounced, contemporary global warming has been signaling its imminent arrival since at least the 1980s,9 opening a narrow window of opportunity in which remedial action could perhaps still prevent our climate from spinning out of control.

A community’s ability to withstand the impending post-normal climate era will hinge on how it does on three related counts: impact, adaptation, and vulnerability.10 Impact denotes the extent to which pertinent biospheric conditions are disrupted. Will the temperature range required for important food crops be sustained? Will the natural water cycle hold? Are coastlines going to remain where they currently are? Can biological diversity stay intact? Adaptation is the human capacity to mobilize economic, technological, and social assets in an effort to come to terms with detrimental impact. Vulnerability pits response against potential impact to yield projected levels of exposure.

The outlook for climate impact, adaptation, and vulnerability in the Middle East and North Africa is, to put it mildly, disconcerting.11 Much of the region, stretching south to north from Yemen to Turkey and east to west from Iran to Morocco, falls within the Northern Hemisphere’s desert belt, one of the hottest, driest regions of the world.12 Predictions suggest that by the end of the century average summer temperatures across the region could be 4°C above their current levels.13 Areas in the northern Middle East, where populations are denser and agriculture more developed, could see rainfall dropping 25 percent before the century is out.14

Climatic shifts on such a scale can inflict a blow on any territory. In a region as arid as the Middle East, where even minor fluctuations carry drastic consequences, they could be devastating. Areas which currently sustain seasonal pasture and rain-fed agriculture could turn to wastelands. Water cycles, stretched as they are, could be depleted further. Chronic heat stress could render major cities unfit for human life.15 Sea-level rise could submerge ports and other seaside installations, salinize coastal aquifers, and force millions to migrate.16

The economic rift between the richer countries of the Middle East and their poorer neighbors is already creating an adaptation divide. As climate stress intensifies, richer countries in the region will rely on their accumulated wealth and technological prowess. Poorer nations, on the other hand, could meet rapid decline and suffer from devastating chain reactions whereby climate change creates scarcity, insecurity, instability, and forced migration. Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia boast GDP per capita akin to levels found among the world’s richest nations. Along with Israel and some metropolitan areas of Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, and Morocco, their civil infrastructures could, with luck, provide protection even in the post-normal climate era. Meanwhile, poorer countries such as Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Jordan, or Egypt, where large communities rely on subsidized staples for basic sustenance and lean on fragile infrastructures, will be infinitely more exposed to climate tremors.

Toxic blends of economic strife, inequality, and socioeconomic tensions can send entire societies into spirals of dysfunction, distrust, and despair.17 Isis and Al-Qaeda rose to prominence in Iraq and Syria by claiming to replace governments that abandon marginal communities. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, tensions between Iran and Sunni regimes, rent-seeking interventionism on the part of regional and global powers, and other tensions could further exacerbate climate-related vulnerabilities in the region.

Communities across the Middle East are already experiencing hardships partly attributable to climate change.18 Brutally long dry spells in Syria and Sudan, combined with other circumstances, forced millions to abandon hinterlands no longer tenable for farming. Seeking better lives in urban hubs, many of those displaced find to their disappointment that governments, already struggling to cater to the urban poor, are reluctant or unable to help them settle in their new locations.19

The situation in the Middle East is further complicated due to the historic role the region played in the political economy of oil. The region’s oil exporting countries, which among them account for more than 40 percent of global oil production20 and control more than half of known global reserves,21 have oil accounting for the lion’s share of their GDP. Like oil producers elsewhere, they tend to see efforts to curb climate change, which invariably entail downsizing oil production, with suspicion. Poorer Middle Eastern countries on the other hand, whose chances to withstand the vagaries of climate change are slim, pin hopes on a comprehensive global pact to save them. A cruel schism thus emerges between humbler communities who yearn for climate action, and other more economically robust ones who often drag their feet. This tension, between countries and sometimes between particular populations in them, is an important focus of attention within this volume.

Climate change is more than yet another environmental hiccup. Systemic, comprehensive, and extremely potent, this crisis of our era is already recasting knowledge and reshaping scientific methods. Atmospheric science grew from a secondary subfield in geophysics to a burgeoning powerhouse attracting talent and investment, and yielding important insights. A new discipline, Earth System Science, has emerged.22 Glaciology (the study of glaciers), dendrochronology (inferring past climate patterns from tree rings), volcanology, paleozoology, and other branches of the natural sciences that regularly produce insights applicable to climate modeling have grown substantially.23 Much research in biology, agriculture, and forestry now focuses on enhancing the productivity and endurance of species capable of surviving the post-normal climate era. Research in new energy forms and water technologies, and of policies that could enhance efficient climate regulation, attract more innovative power than ever before.

Scholars in the social sciences and the humanities too have made important contributions to the conceptualization of climate change and the analysis of its attendant perils. Historian Dipesh Chakrabarty suggested climate change is formidable enough to merit a departure from conventional historiosophical conventions.24 Local, national, and regional histories, he argues, cannot capture the significance and scope of current climate shifts. The time has come for them to be eclipsed by a “species history,” where humanity at large becomes the object of inquiry.

Sociologist Ulrich Beck made a forceful argument about the challenges the climate crisis poses for social science theory.25 Global warming, he noted, is already transforming patterns of political accountability, compelling theorists to forge new vocabularies. Bruno Latour’s comments on the return of nature into contemporary life point in the same direction.26 Early modernism, he argues, promised to undo uncertainties that emanated from nature’s untamed forces. As dams diverted rivers and levees elevated shorelines, as mines leveled mountains and cities kept expanding to the countryside, nature was relegated to quaint reserves, becoming a nostalgic fantasy. Then with climate change the wrath of nature was unleashed anew, reintroducing ancient planetary connections and courting potential disasters on an unimaginable scale. The problem, according to Latour, is that the need for collective universal action confronts the international community at a time in which it has no globe to work with.

Ideally, the social sciences should provide conceptual tools to tackle any crisis. Well not in this case, says Latour. For almost two centuries, social scientists have focused on the state as the primary, self-evident unit of analysis of structures, relations, and connections. Now when they are called to theorize collective action on a global scale, social scientists are stuck, hemmed in by the philosophical and analytical cul-de-sac created by the state.

These calls to recast sociology, politics, and historiography for better comprehension of the climate crisis are fundamentally important. They also signal an epistemological reversal which defines current environmental thinking. The logic that guided 20th-century environmental problem-solving looked to other scientific disciplines for explanatory theory, methodologies, and practical solutions. The systemic nature of climate change and its immense disruptive power now force scientists to reexamine their own knowledge fields. Instead of scientific disciplines propelling environmental praxis, we now have a looming biospheric crisis compelling scientists to reflect, reexamine, and reinvent their disciplines.

This reversal is highly relevant for regional analysis too. Understanding the Middle East and predicting its future without taking into account the impact of climate change is no longer tenable.

In September 2019, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg made a memorable appearance at the UN General Assembly in New York. Her mesmerizing speech, delivered in front of dozens of heads of states and watched by millions globally, embodied the moral authority now claimed by youngsters as they demand that older generations do what it takes to avoid climate chaos. Solemnly resolved and unflinchingly direct, Thunberg conveyed a sense of urgency unlike anything seen on stages of the international climate forums before.

To prevail, the logic personified by Thunberg goes, environmentalists in Western liberal democracies must begin by acting as envoys of scientific evidence regarding global warming. The truth they speak will then help them win over the mainstream, give them political influence, and eventually enable them to strong-arm governments into forcing corporations and consumers to dramatically reduce emissions.

For this mission, Greta is indeed the most effective emissary. She knows the science and political economy of the climate crisis inside out and provides the necessary facts and figures with inspirational conviction, clarity, and poise. She has a blueprint for immediate action that is coherent, sensible, and practical. She talks the talk and walks the walk and finds her way to hearts of folks.

But as the emotional impact of her stirring performance at the UN subsides, the formidable obstacles that await those who seek to realize her vision bounce back. Will the wave of consciousness Greta so movingly created last long enough to revolutionize the global energy market? Can her ideas impact realpolitik and overcome the self-perpetuating logic of the global capitalist economy? Can the alternative she propagates materialize before the fleeting window of opportunity we now have—post-denial, pre–final despair—dissipates? Will the strategy she now personifies win our fateful race against time?

Many, myself included, hope the answer to these questions is affirmative. That said, this book’s analysis of climate change and energy in the Middle East draws a different roadmap to climate redemption. What if instead of the planet being saved by highly educated, conscientious young environmentalists in liberal democracies, it is redeemed by a tiny group of Middle Eastern oligarchs attempting to advance their own self-interests? What if instead of lofty principles of sustainability and climate justice, the sensibility that eventually drives the renewable energy transition comes from despots seeking to protect their hypermodern, ridiculously expensive lifestyles? Could the long-awaited green revolution begin as a result of attempts on the part of the current lords of global energy to prolong and further tighten their control?

To explore this counterintuitive trajectory, this book looks at an assemblage of challenges and opportunities the region faces as the post-normal climate era looms. Chapter 1 reviews the region’s somber climate future. Chapter 2 shows how climate inequality, between states and, not least, within them, exacerbates the crisis. Chapter 3 looks at the disruptions climate change could bring to regional security and demographic stability, and at the unattractive prospect of climate refugees. Chapter 4 explores the potential of solar energy as an economic game changer, focusing on the dilemmas this avenue poses for the region’s oil producers. Chapter 5 then comes full circle to the notion that the Middle East could spearhead the transition to renewables, analyzing the circumstances and dynamics which might help this counterintuitive option become a reality.

NOTES

1. Michael McCormick, Ulf Büntgen, Mark A. Cane, Edward R. Cook, Kyle Harper, Peter John Huybers, and Thomas Litt, “Climate Change during and after the Roman Empire: Reconstructing the Past from Scientific and Historical Evidence,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 43, no. 2 (August 2012): 169–220. A fateful drop in rainfall in the sixth and seventh centuries, the article suggests, could explain the Muslim empire’s westwards push in the seventh century, as well as the invasion of Europe on the part of Central Asian tribes (‘“The Barbarians”‘) and the demise of the late Roman empire.

2. Ibid.

3. Ronny Ellenblum, The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: Climate Change and the Decline of the East, 950–1072 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

4. David Kaniewski, Elise Van Campo, and Harvey Weissc, “Drought Is a Recurring Challenge in the Middle East,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109, no. 10 (2012): 3862–3867.

5. Arie Isar and Matanyah Zohar, Climate Change—Environment and History of the Near East (Berlin: Springer, 2007), 221.

6. Sam White, The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013).

7. Dan Rabinowitz, Here It Comes: How Do We Survive Climate Change? (in Hebrew) (Tel-Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameukhad, 2009).

8. In 2019 a record 36.8 billion tons of greenhouse gases were emitted into the atmosphere globally, https://www.globalcarbonproject.org/carbonbudget/19/infographics.htm (accessed April 6, 2020). In May 2019 atmospheric CO2 concentration reached the highest ever value recorded, 414 parts per million (0.0414 of a percent of the entire weight of the atmosphere), https://research.noaa.gov/article/ArtMID/587/ArticleID/2461/Carbon-dioxide-levels-hit-record-peak-in-May (accessed April 6, 2020).

9. For one of the earliest indications see C. D Keeling,” The Concentration and Isotopic Abundances of Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere,” Tellus, 12 (1960): 200–203.

10. Studies of impact, adaptation, and vulnerability (acronym IAV) have been promoted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since 2009 and involve scientists from a variety of disciplines. See http://sedac.ipcc-data.org/ddc/ar5_scenario_process/parallel_IAV_research.html (accessed October 10, 2018).

11. This book looks at the Middle East at large, including North Africa (the Maghreb) and the Horn of Africa. It uses ‘“the Middle East”‘ to denote the entire region, making references to particular segments when necessary.

12. The Northern Hemisphere’s desert belt stretches from the Atlantic shores of Northern Africa in the west to China in the east.

13. Jason Evans, “21st Century Climate Change in the Middle East,” Climatic Change 92 (2009): 417–432.

14. Ibid.

15. For a review of occupations that could cause workers heat stress, see Matthew McKinnon, Elise Buckle, Kamal Gueye et al., Climate Change and Labour: Impacts of Heat in the Workplace, April 29, 2016, www.ilo.org. (accessed October 18, 2019).

16. IPCC 4th Assessment Report (2007); for a more recent update on sea level rise see https://www.carbonbrief.org/explainer-how-climate-change-is-accelerating-sea-level-rise (accessed September 20, 2019).

17. Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Nation Books, 2011).

18. Andreas Malm, “Revolution in a Warming World: Lessons from the Russian to the Syrian Revolutions,” The Bullet, April 23, 2018.

19. Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (London: Pluto Press, 2018).

20. J. William Carpenter, “The Biggest Oil Producers in the Middle East,” Investopedia, November 8, 2019, https://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/101515/biggest-oil-producers-middle-east.asp.

21. According to OPEC estimates of oil reserves in 2016, http://www.opec.org/opec_web/en/data_graphs/330.htm (accessed October 18, 2019).

22. “Earth system science,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth_system_science (accessed October 18, 2019).

23. Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Holt, 2014).

24. Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35 (2009): 197–222.

25. Ulrich Beck,” Emancipatory Catastrophism: What Does It Mean to Climate Change and Risk Society?” Current Sociology 63(1) 75–88.

26. Bruno Latour, A Plea for Earthly Sciences. Keynote lecture, the Annual Meeting of the British Sociological Association, East London, April 2007.