Dr. Leila Zakhirova, associate professor of political science at Concordia, and co-author William R. Thompson, Distinguished and Rogers Professor Emeritus at Indiana University, have written a book on the role of climate change in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The book, “Climate Change in the Middle East and North Africa: 15,000 Years of Crises, Setbacks, and Adaptation,” was published by Routledge in July 2021.
Zakhirova and Thompson talk about their book:
Why did you decide to focus on the Middle East and North Africa?
To the extent that researchers pick their foci, they are attracted by puzzles that need explaining. The Middle East and North Africa is not new to the climate crisis story. Indeed, it has a very long history of climate change problems that are frequently downplayed and in need of explanation over time. We were particularly attracted by the challenge of a long study because such studies are not attempted often enough.
How does someone even begin to research 15,000 years of history?
The quick answer is that one does not read any literature that is 15,000 years old. No one was writing for the first half of the time period we look at. But there is plenty of evidence of what happened during that period that requires interpretation. We can study things like temperatures and rainfall. We can view and date the collapse of settlements and larger urban dwellings. In this book, we tried to assess whether the timing of the changes in temperatures and rainfall coincided with the societal collapses in the region.
If climate has been changing for 15,000 years, can we really blame it on things like greenhouse gasses and fossil fuels, which are more recent phenomena? Is climate change cyclical?
Global warming related to fossil fuel exploitation is a relatively new phenomenon, although there is at least one argument that human activities have been “messing” with the environment since at least the time of the Romans – what has changed has simply been the scale of damage and the rate with which it is damaging the environment. In our study, we look at periodic episodes of climate change in which the climate becomes colder and dryer. Exactly why these climate changes occurred is not something that we spend much time on, and they may actually have multiple causes, including the changes in Siberian climate that were funneled toward the eastern Mediterranean and China. Our argument is that the effects of these climate changes are similar to the effects that can be anticipated from global warming, which is sending the world into a warmer phase. Are the colder and dryer changes cyclical? Not in the sense that they occur exactly every 1500 years, but they do occur fairly regularly. That said, there are natural processes of climate change that have been exacerbated by human activities and the latest IPCC report provides ample scientific evidence to that effect.
How is the deterioration of the MENA region going to affect the rest of the world?
Our expectation is that if global warming approximates some of the more severe forecasts, large proportions of the earth’s population will have serious difficulties accessing sufficient food and water to survive. This is not a problem restricted to the MENA region we studied. It will also devastate parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Of course, the global warming that is affecting MENA and other parts of the world will have impacts of varying and different kinds on the entire planet. The main difference between MENA and the Global North is that the MENA population will have nowhere to go and inadequate local resources to cope with the devastation. Life will be much different on planet Earth and the policy question will be how people will respond to these radical changes.
How will the MENA climate story affect the United States?
The United States is more affluent and has more access to technology than much of the rest of the world. That affluence and technology will be needed to offset the ravages of global warming to whatever extent is possible. But no state will go unaffected by the problems of other states. For instance, North-South migration pressures will be far greater than those people worry about currently. Instead of many thousands of people seeking refuge, there could be millions. New pandemics could become frequent events. The probability of conflict might increase. It could very well become a nastier world than anything we have seen in the past. It’s hard enough to police the world in a relatively stable climate regime. Imagine what the job could look like for the world’s leading economy when the crime rates and the sheer scale of human suffering doubles or even triples.
Did your research come up with any answers/conclusions as to what we (the world and the U.S.) should do about global warming?
Our book is not mainly about global warming. Rather it is about the last 15,000 years of recurring climate change and its effects on societies in MENA. Toward the end of our book, we note that global warming should have similar devastating effects to past episodes of major climate change, with the exception that current population sizes are much greater than in the past and the possibility of finding refuge from climate deterioration are far less likely than before. Global warming is not a natural process. It required human intervention in the form of becoming dependent on exploiting fossil fuel for energy. We cannot escape some of the deterioration that is already underway but can presumably lessen the severity of the problem by moving away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. There is not really much the MENA population can do to head off the problems that are heading their way. It is up to the developed world to do something to make global warming less destructive and to minimize human suffering. The prospects of that happening in time do not look encouraging.