Climate change? What climate change?” These are the twoquestions I often hear when I mention this issue to Arabofficials. If I insist, they get irritated and change thesubject. Others try to play it smart and argue like some USoil corporates, claiming current climate changes are naturalphenomena and not connected to any human activity. Thisdefensive approach is understandable in a region that hasenough political and economic problems, ranging from thePalestinian-Israeli conflict to civil wars in Iraq andSudan, huge discrepancies between poor and rich in mostsocieties and visible pollution in the air of cities as wellas along rivers and coastlines.
But the longer Arab leaders ignore the issue of climatechange, the higher the price Arab societies will pay in thefuture. And this price will be paid with money and humanlives. Sadly, environmental protection is not high on theagenda of Arab governments, the 2005 EnvironmentalSustainability Index found out. Its scores, given to 146countries, are attributed to substantial natural resourceendowments, low population density, and successfulmanagement of environment and development issues. Finlandranked first, followed by Norway, Uruguay, Sweden andIceland. The index put Iraq at 143, Kuwait at 138, SaudiArabia at 136, Lebanon at 129 and the UAE at 110. The threebest Arab states were Tunisia (55), Oman (83) and Jordan(84). Israel landed at 62.
But what strikes me most is the lack of knowledge among Arabdecision-makers about the main causes of climate change, andwhat could be done to stop it. A United Nations scientificpanel agrees that climate change is one of the biggestthreats facing our planet. The main reason is the globalrapid growth in energy production and consumption since the1950s—by burning fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil.Intensive agriculture and the cutting of forests also emitscarbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that heat up the Earth. Theresult is more devastating freak weather events such asflash floods, storms, heat waves, mudslides or droughts.This greenhouse effect also leads to the melting of icepacksin the North and South poles, causing sea levels to rise.
We are heading into global average temperature increases of2 to 3 C°, with rising sea levels wiping countries off themap. Developing nations will be hit first and worst.Meanwhile, the World Health Organization said 150,000 peopledie every year as a result of climate change. In theMediterranean region, climate change has started toundermine efforts for sustainable development.
Last January, the European Union published a report dealingwith the disasters that will take place along the northernshores of the Mediterranean. Assuming a global 3 C° rise,the basin would face crippling shortages of both water andtourists by 2050, and tens of thousands will die of heat insouthern Europe. The annual migration of rich northernEuropeans to the south could stop—with dramatic consequencesfor the economies of Spain, Greece and Italy. If southernEurope will be hit so badly, one can imagine the economicand health impacts climate change will have on the Maghrebstates, Egypt, Palestine/Israel, Lebanon and Syria.
Cairo is among the 22 cities that the UK government’s recentStern report tipped to face increasing risks of coastalsurges and flooding, as the Earth warms by about 3° from the2050s. Floods from rising sea levels could displace up to200 million people worldwide. For Egypt, this means that theNile Delta is under threat.
Arab states need to face that climate change is alreadyhitting them and that they must deal with it. No one issaying that oil and gas should be left untouchedunderground. But to help avert the crisis, a serious globalcut of CO2 emissions should go hand in hand with much lessoil, gas and coal burnt. This does not have to mean aneconomic disaster for Arab oil-producing countries. It couldbe a historic chance to produce hydrogen in a sustainableway with solar power.
Let us imagine all over the Arab world, millions of squarekilometers of solar panels producing hydrogen. This wouldcreate a hydrogen economy, in which energy is stored andtransported by pipelines or tankers. When burning hydrogenin heating systems, energy plants, vehicles or aircraft theexhaust pipes and chimneys will only release water in theatmosphere. Such an energy revolution needs decades ofmassive investments in this technology and in a new globalinfrastructure. Under this strategy, oil countries wouldslowly reduce their oil output while exporting more and morehydrogen. Oil reserves would last longer.
One would assume that hydrogen would be difficult to sell inthe Gulf, the world’s main source of oil. But this isanything but paradoxical. It is a matter of survival,because the cry for sustainability is becoming increasinglyurgent. From Morocco to Iraq and from Syria to Yemen, largeunpopulated and desert areas could be used to producehydrogen from solar energy. Clean hydrogen made there couldboth save the planet and secure the economic survival of theArab world in the post-oil era.