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Eastern Mediterranean’s Climate Fight Can Decrease Tensions – OpEd

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By Yossi Mekelberg*

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In a rather low-key fashion, a virtual meeting at ministerial level was this month convened by Cyprus to address climate change in the Eastern Mediterranean and discuss regional collaboration on the impacts of global warming on this part of the world in light of the COP26 summit. The monumental task of tackling global warming is a challenge for the entire world, but especially so for the Eastern Mediterranean, which together with the rest of the Middle East is being disproportionately affected by climate change. To respond appropriately to this threat, there is an incontrovertible need for close cooperation and coordination between all the regional powers, despite what might appear to be the insurmountable challenge of overcoming geopolitical rivalries that go back decades, if not centuries, and are being played out today even in the face of the cataclysmic danger posed by climate change.

In a region that includes Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, in addition to the larger neighborhood of the rest of the Middle East, the big question is whether the threat of runaway global warming can bring these governments together in the face of such adversity, while deep interstate and intrastate conflicts and ingrained suspicion and hostility persist. The imperative of overcoming divisions for the greater good is self-evident, but a consensus that will require concessions on many issues looks like being hard to come by.

However, there is a chance, remote as it might seem at the moment, that the looming climate catastrophe might induce change and readiness to collaborate on environmental issues. This hope was embodied by the “Ministerial Meeting for the Climate Change in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East Initiative” that was chaired by Cyprus. If the outcome of this initiative is successful, it might turn out to be a catalyst for resolving other issues of contention. After all, what is the logic in countries continuing to spend all their energy and resources, including the cost in human suffering, on whatever disagreements they hold when a storm that threatens to destroy all of us is fast approaching? In the face of climate catastrophe, the importance of territorial or ethno-religious disputes and conflicts, or any other form of power struggle, should pale into insignificance.

It is arguable that the message of the star-studded satirical disaster movie “Don’t Look Up” is that, even when faced with an impending and existential global disaster, governments — and with them most people — would rather retreat into denial mode until it is too late. Yet, as much as this might appear to be the case now in relation to global warming, the reality is that there is a growing awareness and with it increasing concern about the consequences of neglecting this danger and its impact on the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

In the run up to COP26, we witnessed a flurry of announcements by regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, Greece and Israel committing their economies to become zero-carbon. This instills some hope that, despite its current reliance on fossil fuels, there is a recognition that the region, being among those most exposed to the risks originating from climate change, must act and with a sense of urgency.

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There is growing evidence about the detrimental impact of heatwaves and of droughts and flash floods, which are becoming more frequent and causing more communities to suffer from food insecurity, in addition to the resulting air pollution and insect and water-borne infectious diseases. Moreover, as temperatures increase, sea levels are rising, threatening coastal ecosystems, communities and crops along the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. These phenomena don’t recognize borders, let alone political conflicts, and can only be confronted by a timely and decisive regional response.

There is no single solution for dealing with global warming in the Eastern Mediterranean as its climatic conditions are so diverse. But the rate of warming in the entire Mediterranean region is 20 percent faster than the global average and precipitation has decreased by up to 30 percent, while the increasing demand for fresh water is projected to at least double in the next 30 years. This level of warming is now way above the 1.5 degrees Celsius set by the Paris Agreement as the target for preventing an irreversible destructive impact on our planet. But the impact on the region is not only increasing in a linear direction, but is also unpredictable in nature and varies from place to place.

The Eastern Mediterranean is also characterized by political and social diversity, which brings with it tensions and, in some cases, prolonged conflict, occasionally over resources including fresh water, which is essential for sustaining population growth and economic development. A joint regional effort to manage this resource is essential not only to help reduce the impact of global warming, but also to avert political tensions within and between societies.

Last year’s COP26 summit in Glasgow induced not only increased awareness but also a sense of urgency that, in this battle against climate change, we are all in it together or we are doomed to fail. Thus far, the discussions within individual countries in the Eastern Mediterranean have led to the introduction of new policies, but not enough to indicate that governments and their peoples have internalized that, in this existential battle, a joint effort could lead to victory. Furthermore, when it comes to climate change, there is still not enough acknowledgment among nations that we are in a crisis situation that might also result in domestic instability, more pressure from migration and inevitably create further geopolitical tensions on top of the existing ones.

All of this demands an upgrading from state-centered climate change programs to regional ones that are able to coordinate action to counter the threats, in addition to distributing resources according to need in order to limit global warming and mitigate its severe climatic, political and societal consequences. Transitioning to renewable energies, building defenses against rising sea levels, creating new sources of fresh water and protecting those who lose their livelihoods to changing climatic conditions should all be high-priority projects. But this requires that countries with long-standing disputes, some in a state of war, alter their behavior. If they don’t, the future for this part of the world will be bleak. If they do, they might also confine some of their long-running conflicts to history.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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