One of the world’s political hotspots is already a climate crisis zone, with the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East region now warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.
By the close of the century, the region could be 5°C hotter, researchers warn. Cypriot, Greek, Saudi Arabian, Palestinian, Israeli, and Jordanian scientists all worked with Western European colleagues to prepare the report.
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If humankind continues to take no drastic action to reduce fossil fuel use, an already arid region will continue to parch. Heat waves, dust storms, wildfires, and droughts will become more severe and endure for longer, the projections show. And when rain does fall, it could be torrential, bringing the risk of devastating flash floods.
The report in the journal Review of Geophysics was prepared and published to concentrate minds at the UN-sponsored COP 27 climate summit in Egypt in November. It also warns that, together, the 17 countries in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East region (EMME for short) could be about to overtake the European Union as a major emitter of greenhouse gases.
The findings summarize and confirm signals that have been clear for at least a decade: the region is under increasing climate stress.
Six years ago, the same zone was in the grip of what was identified as the worst drought in 900 years. Subsequent studies have confirmed that Mediterranean winters will become steadily more dry, and that higher Mediterranean temperatures will probably start to export Saharan conditions to the southern shores of mainland Europe.
Although the region will be hotter than the rest of the world, levels in the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Gulf will continue to rise at about the average global rate. This would be enough to put at risk coastal ports, cities, and farmland, and taint coastal aquifers with salt, even in the densely populated and closely cultivated Nile delta of Egypt.
The Middle East has played a key part in the creation of human civilization. Wheat, pulses, figs, olives, and grapes were first cultivated in the Fertile Crescent, and the world’s sheep and cattle were first domesticated in the same landscape. Philosophy, mathematics, science, and literature all have roots in the region. It is also the backdrop to some of the first accountancy, legislation, and public irrigation schemes. Roman imperial domination flourished in the region during two centuries of relatively humid climate conditions at the start of the first millennium. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all began there from shared traditions.
But the implication of the latest research is that for some, civilization is now at risk. By the century’s end, if high greenhouse gas emissions continue, four out of five of the region’s densely populated cities could suffer heat waves for around half of each year’s warm months. Those extremes would become more frequent, hotter, and longer-lasting.
Even more alarmingly, the projections do not incorporate the notorious urban heat island effect, in which crowded cities tend to be several degrees hotter than the surrounding hinterland. And those cities will become more crowded.
A lifetime ago, this landscape numbered only about 85 million people. Population has increased five-fold and by 2050, the region could be home to 600 million. And of these, 76% will be packed into the cities, if they can live there at all. By the end of the century, the report says, the Middle East and North African region could be home to more than a billion people.
“If such high temperatures become a reality during the warm season, parts of the region may become uninhabitable for some species. These will likely include humans and even animals tolerant of high temperatures, such as camels,” the 48-page study warns.
The report adds that climate change offers a challenge to human security. It directly affects human health and well-being, “especially among underprivileged people, the elderly, children, and pregnant women.” It puts at risk the supplies of food and water, and it undermines human livelihoods, human culture, and human rights. It drives the desperate to migrate in large numbers, and less directly it intensifies the risk of armed conflict.
Precisely because the problems are not confined the national boundaries, the only solutions depend increasingly on international partnership and cooperation implicit in COP 27.
“Such collaborations will be vital to achieving timely mitigation targets and concurrently ensuring energy security,” the study concludes. “Educational and research institutions in the region should play a leading role in promoting collaborations, regardless of political, cultural, and religious differences.”
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