As the western and southern United States sizzled in record heat this summer, a broad swath of the Middle East was suffering through the worst drought in memory. Through June and July, Middle Easterners sweltered in unusually high temperatures. In Morocco, where half the population works in agriculture, lack of rainfall has forced thousands of peasants into the overcrowded shantytowns around large cities. In Iran, precipitation has dropped by 25 percent in the last two years. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that drought has ruined 2.8 million tons of Iranian wheat and killed 800,000 livestock. Once fertile regions of Iraq are baking, as what the FAO calls the worst drought in 100 years destroys 75 percent of the wheat harvest. The US-led economic sanctions make it very difficult to acquire the equipment and fertilizers that might ameliorate the crisis, and Iraq becomes ever more dependent on imported food. Drought underscores the centrality of equitable water distribution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The parched Middle East draws our attention to the disturbing trend of global warming. Over the last two decades, US coal and oil companies and oil-producing nations have lavished millions upon a tiny cabal of researchers who deny the trend, casting global warming as just another theory. Notwithstanding the sophistry of industry-funded naysayers, the heat is indisputably on. For the last 70 years, the planet has been heating at a projected rate of four degrees per century (compared to a rate of one degree per century over the last few centuries). The eleven hottest years on the books have occurred since 1983. 1998 was hotter than the record-setting 1997, and so far 2000 is set to be even hotter. Global warming, of course, not only raises average temperatures, it exacerbates the severity of naturally occurring weather patterns — droughts and hurricanes alike.
Food and water shortages are not the only danger posed to human wellbeing by global warming. If temperatures rise by the 3-7 degrees predicted by 2015, huge areas of low-lying coastline could be submerged, arable land lost and populations displaced. (For a little perspective, the last Ice Age was only 5-9 degrees colder than the present climate.) The August 2000 Scientific American details serious public health risks: because warming enlarges the habitat of malaria-bearing mosquitoes, some models project that fully 60 percent of the world’s population will live in malaria transmission zones by the end of the century. Malaria, a disease with no known vaccine, already kills 3,000 people per day.
The solution to the warming crisis is simple, but a daunting political task. Climate restabilization requires nothing less than a global reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by 70 percent. But the West — led by the US, the world’s biggest energy consumer — balks at implementing the modest 7 percent reductions mandated by the Kyoto accord. Meanwhile, corporate globalization is foisting polluting technologies on the developing world and seducing people across the world into the consumerist lifestyles that have become unsustainable in the US.
The immediate prospects for changing energy and environmental policy appear dim. With Gore, Bush and vice-presidential nominee Dick Cheney all married to Big Oil, the Republicrats will be readier than ever to defend fossil fuel interests. Currently, the US spends $20 billion annually on fossil fuel subsidies. As long as the handouts keep coming, energy conglomerates are unlikely to invest heavily in renewable energy technologies to make them more profitable than coal, oil and gas.
Neither are the ossified regimes that sit atop much of the world’s oil and gas likely to reduce their dependence on their strategic asset any time soon. But the Middle East, more than many regions, possesses vast renewable energy potential — one can imagine solar panels covering the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia, windmills across the Sahara. Middle Eastern governments would be wise to develop this potential before multinational energy conglomerates do it for them. Assuring the equitable distribution of renewable energy resources and revenue between North and South — and within the countries of North and South — will be a crucial mission for progressives in the future.