Time to think about climate change and security in the Middle East?

Wednesday, 17. June 2009     0 comment(s)
Mari Luomi
International Politics of Natural Resources and the Environment research programme
Middle Eastern states surely have already enough work in keeping up with security issues of the traditional kind. However, the governments in the region will also soon need to start addressing some longer-term security issues, which might undermine the stability of their rule far sooner than expected. These issues include the depleting oil and water reserves in the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and Israel) and Egypt, as well as the Gulf’s dependence on imported food. Moreover, all of these are united by one common catalyst, namely climate change.

Climate change has, until the last few years, attracted little attention from Middle Eastern decision-makers. In a region where wars in neighbouring states and suppression of domestic political dissent are everyday state business, talk of temperatures and sea-levels rising within the next few decades seems still as distant as the formation of a Palestinian state.

As a consequence, a very narrow concept of security continues to be largely applied in foreign policy-making. Security threats and societal problems of a higher degree of urgency that reflect in the everyday life of Middle Easterners have so far commanded the political agenda of national and regional politics, as well as the preferences of individuals as to what the priorities of the state should be.

However, the states in the Middle East share a common regional system in which problems of security and foreign relations are deeply interwoven. In the near future, the climate change-related problems of the more oil-scarce Arab countries will be the problems of their richer neighbours as well. These problems, which will equally touch all both the rich and the poor, include water scarcity, land degradation, elevating temperatures and rising sea levels. Although the wealthier Gulf monarchies have the funds and technology and are, in general, in a better position to adapt to these challenges, climate change can still cause damage to their coastal infrastructure, including energy installations, and further aggravate their already fragile water and food security situation. Possible social consequences of climate change also include mass migration from poorer states and regions and the consequent rise in social problems and extremism.

Now it seems that the security impacts of climate change on the Middle East are finally getting some of the attention they deserve. In early June, the Canadian International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) published a study on the links between climate change, peace and conflict in the region. The paper, titled ‘Rising Temperatures, Rising Tensions: Climate change and the risk of violent conflict in the Middle East’ is the first of its kind to be published for a wider audience. It draws three main conclusions:
  • The past and current conflicts hinder adaptation; and
  • climate change causes security threats for the region, but
  • there is still hope if the issue is addressed at all levels and through cooperation. 
It may be that framing climate change as a security issue is the only way to get both governments and citizens within the region to perceive the urgency of acting both to mitigate climate change and to start planning for adaptation. The danger is that this might lead to a securitisation of the issue, which could further undermine regional cooperation in addressing climate change.

However, as the costs of inaction keep rising, alternative ways of raising awareness in the region might have to be considered.

Photo by Mari Luomi, 2008

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

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