Here’s my bet about the future of Sunni, Shiite, Arab, Turkish, Kurdish and Israeli relations: If they don’t end their long-running conflicts, Mother Nature is going to destroy them all long before they destroy one another. Let me point out a few news items you may have missed while debating the Iran nuclear deal.
On July 31, USA Today reported that in Bandar Mahshahr, Iran, a city adjacent to the Persian Gulf, the heat index soared to 163 degrees “as a heat wave continued to bake the Middle East, already one of the hottest places on earth. ‘That was one of the most incredible temperature observations I have ever seen, and it is one of the most extreme readings ever in the world,’ AccuWeather meteorologist Anthony Sagliani said in a statement.
“While the temperature was ‘only’ 115 degrees, the dew point was an unfathomable 90 degrees. ... The combination of heat and humidity, measured by the dew point, is what makes the heat index — or what the temperature actually feels like outside.” Then we saw something we’ve not seen before: An Iraqi government was sacked over its failure to deliver air conditioning. Two weeks ago, the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, abolished all three vice presidential posts and the office of deputy prime minister and proposed sweeping anti-corruption reforms after weeks of street protests over the fact that the government could supply electricity for air-conditioning for only a few hours a day during weeks of 120-degree temperatures.
As The Times’ Anne Barnard reported on Aug. 1, the heat issue in Iraq “has even eclipsed war with the Islamic State. The prime minister ... declared a four-day weekend to keep people out of the sun ... and ordered an end to one of the most coveted perks of government officials: round-the-clock power for their air-conditioners. ...
“Several thousand people — workers, artists and intellectuals — demonstrated Friday evening ... in the center of Baghdad, chanting and carrying signs about the lack of electricity and blaming corruption for it. ... Some men stripped to their shorts and lay down in the street to sleep, a strong statement in a modest society. ... The protest was unusual in that it did not appear to have been called for by any major political party.”
On Feb. 19, 2014, The Associated Press reported from Iran: “The first Cabinet decision made under Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, wasn’t about how to resolve his country’s nuclear dispute with world powers. It was about how to keep the nation’s largest lake from disappearing. Lake Oroumieh, one of the biggest saltwater lakes on earth, has shrunk more than 80 percent to ... (nearly 400 square miles) in the past decade, mainly because of climate change, expanded irrigation for surrounding farms and the damming of rivers that feed the body of water, experts say.
“‘The lake is gone. My job is gone. My children are gone. Tourists, too,’ said Mozafar Cheraghi, 58, as he stood on a dusty platform that was once his bustling teahouse.” Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell run the indispensable Center for Climate and Security in Washington that tracks these trends. They noted that South Asia scholar Michael Kugelman recently observed “that in Pakistan more people have died from the heat wave than from terrorism this year. We would emphasize that there shouldn’t be a competition between ‘terrorism’ and ‘climate stress,’ but that the resources spent on the former vastly outstrip the latter.”
They added, “A 2011 study from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found strong evidence that winter precipitation decline in the Mediterranean littoral and the Middle East from 1971 to 2010 was likely due to climate change, with the region experiencing nearly all of its driest winters since 1902 in the past 20 years.”
Finally they noted: “The social contract between governments and their publics is being stressed by these extreme events, and that matters are only likely to get worse, given climate projections for many of these places. ... Governments that are responsive to publics in the face of these stresses are likely to strengthen the social contract, while those who are unresponsive are likely to weaken it. And for the most part, we’re seeing inadequate responses.” Indeed, see Syria: Its revolution was preceded by the worst four-year drought in the country’s modern history, driving nearly 1 million farmers and herders off the land, into the cities where the government of Bashar Assad completely failed to help them, fueling the revolution.
All the people in this region are playing with fire. While they’re fighting over who is caliph, who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad from the seventh century — Sunnis or Shiites — and to whom God really gave the holy land, Mother Nature is not sitting idle. She doesn’t do politics — only physics, biology and chemistry. And if they add up the wrong way, she will take them all down.
The only “ism” that will save them is not Shiism or Islamism but “environmentalism” — understanding that there is no Shiite air or Sunni water, there is just “the commons,” their shared ecosystems, and unless they cooperate to manage and preserve them (and we all address climate change), vast eco-devastation awaits them all.
Thomas Friedman writes for The New York Times.