The Center for International and Regional Studies and the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, held a Panel discussion on “Who or What Drives Climate Change Policy in the Arab World?” on December 3, 2012. The panel featured Karim Makdisi from the American University of Beirut; Roula Majdalani from the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia; Lama El Hatow from IndyACT-The League of Independent Activists; and Rabi Mohtar from the Qatar Energy and Environment Research Institute (QEERI).
The panel moderator, Karim Makdisi, posed the question “who or what drives climate change policy in the Arab World?” to the speakers and the audience. He argued that there needs to be an examination of the drivers behind a reinvigorated interest in climate change among Arab governments. In answer to this question, the first speaker, Roula Majdalani, advocated for the state as the most important player in any climate change related issue. However, Majdalani said that it was necessary to unpack the idea of the state and question who or what it represents. This, she said, is especially relevant in the context of the Arab uprisings and “the dismantling of the security apparatus.” The dissolution of various regional regimes does not necessarily mean that the state per se has disappeared, but that there are new dynamics taking shape at the level of governance, and this reformation is something that is new to many Arab countries.
The state, Majdalani said, plays a strategic role in climate change issues in its “ability for working through complex governance structures, working at an inter-ministerial level, working with a long range perspective, and working on issues that are transboundary, and in that sense the state really is a key interlocutor in this process of negotiation.” It is also the main player in mobilizing financing and ensuring the transfer of technology at the domestic and international levels.
The state has the main responsibility of addressing issues related to extreme climactic conditions such as droughts and floods. It is, therefore, in the state’s interest to take a leading role in driving climate change policy, especially in the countries of the Arab World where issues of water and energy are paramount. The state is also responsible for safeguarding, preserving, and exploiting natural resources without adversely affecting neighboring countries. Carbon emissions are necessarily transboundary, and so the state must negotiate with its neighbors and, indeed, with the international community for international climate related agreements.
In conclusion, Majdalani argued that the increasing interest in issues of climate change among Arab nations provides a unique opportunity to reinvent the idea of the state as an entity that is accountable, transparent, and responsible. Traditionally, some Arab states have been strong in terms of forcefulness and authoritarianism, but are weak when it comes to the will and capacity to tackle such irreversible environmental issues.
Rabi Mohtar was the second speaker on the panel and he highlighted the crucial role of science, research, and development in addressing climate change concerns. He argued that climate change discourse is dominated by the key words of “adaptation” and “mitigation,” but that there needs to be more critical investigation into exactly what it is that should be adapted or mitigated. Current climate change data states that, on a global level, “the extremes in terms of climate are getting hotter, but that doesn’t tell us where and how.” Further complicating the discourse, the scientific knowledge on climate change is still in a nascent phase and much of the data is contradictory and inaccurate. Mohtar argued that there is urgent need to invest in research and development. QEERI, he said, is taking the lead on many such research initiatives in the region and “embarking on an initial study that looks into the effects of climate change on dust and dust storms.”
It is befitting that Qatar hosted the COP 18 conference, Mohtar said, since it is the Middle East and the Arab World that are most affected by issues of increased population growth and the concomitant stresses on food, water, and energy. The Middle East “is where the highest per capita consumption of water and energy are taking place” and where food security is becoming an increasing concern. “There is no single country in the whole region that is self-sufficient,” in terms of food, and so “the food-water nexus is an extreme driver for climate change research that we should be focusing on.” This includes investigating efforts to reintroduce dry land agriculture that had been traditionally used in the countries of the Middle East since ancient times. Mohtar conclude by saying that there is a significant need for a climate change model that is locally developed for the region – one that is specifically designed for arid and semi-arid regions.
The final speaker on the panel was Lama El Hatow who rallied for the importance of civil society in climate change issues. She argued for “the role that civil society can also play by affecting and influencing climate change policy in this part of the world.” El Hatow explained that civil society in many countries of Arab World has been either dormant or non-existent. This was largely due to “the oppressive nature of many Arab governments and the way that many social structures function” in some Arab states. Since the regional uprisings, however, this scene has changed dramatically and a space has been opened for civil society organizations to operate openly and effectively. These new formations are increasingly made up of youth groups who are advocating for a variety of issues and, more importantly, people are speaking out on all issues related to human rights.
Since climate change issues are transboundary and of global concern, Arab civil society organizations are teaming up with their international counterparts and pressing their governments on unified issues. Although many of these groups have limited capacity, their passion for the issues has made a significant difference. As a final thought, El Hatow said that although many regional and international governments have made great strides in addressing issues of climate change, civil society organizations are still needed as they act as a monitoring force and a constant voice that prompts governments into further action.
Article by Suzi Mirgani, Manager and Editor for CIRS Publications
Karim Makdisi is an Associate Professor of International Politics and International Environmental Policy in the Department of Political Studies and Public Administration at the American University of Beirut (AUB). He is also the Associate Director of AUB’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, and coordinates the Environmental Policy component of AUB’s Interfaculty Graduate Environmental Science Program.
Roula Majdalani holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from Syracuse University. She worked with Dar Al-Handasah Consultants (London), from 1985 to 1988 as an Urban Planner preparing surveys, sectoral studies and research activities for urban development projects in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco.
Rabi Mohtar founded the Global Engineering Program at Purdue University where he was a Professor of Environmental and Natural Resources Engineering since 1996. His professional activities addressed the important issues of Water – Energy Food nexus and its inter-linkages; more specifically in developing and maintaining the environmental aspects of sustainable development.