Must-Read: Tom Friedman On Climate Change And ‘The Other Arab Spring’

The Arab awakening was driven not only by political and economic stresses, but, less visibly, by environmental, population and climate stresses as well. If we focus only on the former and not the latter, we will never be able to help stabilize these societies.”

NOAA concluded in 2011 that “human-caused climate change [is now] a major factor in more frequent Mediterranean droughts.” Reds and oranges highlight lands around the Mediterranean that experienced significantly drier winters during 1971-2010 than the comparison period of 1902-2010.  [Click to enlarge.]

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has a terrific column on how climate change has already begun to impact the Middle East — and how it is only going to get much worse if we don’t act soon.

Friedman is one of the few journalists and columnists to win 3 Pulitzers, his first for coverage of the war in Lebanon, then for his coverage of Israel, and finally for commentary on global terrorism. His bestseller From Beirut to Jerusalem won the 1989 U.S. National Book Award for Nonfiction.

He opens today’s column, “The Other Arab Spring,” with some telling details:

ISN’T it interesting that the Arab awakening began in Tunisia with a fruit vendor who was harassed by police for not having a permit to sell food — just at the moment when world food prices hit record highs? And that it began in Syria with farmers in the southern village of Dara’a, who were demanding the right to buy and sell land near the border, without having to get permission from corrupt security officials? And that it was spurred on in Yemen — the first country in the world expected to run out of water — by a list of grievances against an incompetent government, among the biggest of which was that top officials were digging water wells in their own backyards at a time when the government was supposed to be preventing such water wildcatting? As Abdelsalam Razzaz, the minister of water in Yemen’s new government, told Reuters last week: “The officials themselves have traditionally been the most aggressive well diggers. Nearly every minister had a well dug in his house.”

Then he goes on to excerpt an important analysis from the Center for Climate and Security (which I reposted here):

“Syria’s current social unrest is, in the most direct sense, a reaction to a brutal and out-of-touch regime,” write Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell, in a report for their Center for Climate and Security in Washington. “However, that’s not the whole story. The past few years have seen a number of significant social, economic, environmental and climatic changes in Syria that have eroded the social contract between citizen and government. … If the international community and future policy makers in Syria are to address and resolve the drivers of unrest in the country, these changes will have to be better explored.”

From 2006-11, they note, up to 60 percent of Syria’s land experienced one of the worst droughts and most severe set of crop failures in its history. “According to a special case study from last year’s Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, of the most vulnerable Syrians dependent on agriculture, particularly in the northeast governorate of Hassakeh (but also in the south), ‘nearly 75 percent … suffered total crop failure.’ Herders in the northeast lost around 85 percent of their livestock, affecting 1.3 million people.” The United Nations reported that more than 800,000 Syrians had their livelihoods wiped out by these droughts, and many were forced to move to the cities to find work — adding to the burdens of already incompetent government.

“If climate projections stay on their current path, the drought situation in North Africa and the Middle East is going to get progressively worse, and you will end up witnessing cycle after cycle of instability that may be the impetus for future authoritarian responses,” argues Femia. “There are a few ways that the U.S. can be on the right side of history in the Arab world. One is to enthusiastically and robustly support democratic movements.” The other is to invest in climate-adaptive infrastructure and improvements in water management — to make these countries more resilient in an age of disruptive climate change.

A key point is that it’s now increasingly clear that the climate models that had been predicting the countries surrounding the Mediterranean would start to dry out were correct (see “NOAA: Human-Caused Climate Change Already a Major Factor in More Frequent Mediterranean Droughts,” the source of the figure at the top).

Friedman writes:

“The magnitude and frequency of the drying that has occurred is too great to be explained by natural variability alone,” noted Martin Hoerling, of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, the lead author of the paper. “This is not encouraging news for a region that already experiences water stress, because it implies natural variability alone is unlikely to return the region’s climate to normal.”

Especially when you consider the other stresses. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, the executive director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development in London, writing in The Beirut Daily Star in February, pointed out that 12 of the world’s 15 most water-scarce countries — Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Israel and Palestine — are in the Middle East, and after three decades of explosive population growth these countries are “set to dramatically worsen their predicament. Although birth rates are falling, one-third of the overall population is below 15 years old, and large numbers of young women are reaching reproductive age, or soon will be.” A British Defense Ministry study, he added, “has projected that by 2030 the population of the Middle East will increase by 132 percent — generating an unprecedented ‘youth bulge.’ ”

The fact that the 2011 NOAA analysis confirmed the climate models’ predictions of drying is especially worrisome because the climate models project a very dry future for large parts of the planet’s currently habited and arable land in the coming decades — particularly this region:

drought map 2 2030-2039

The National Center for Atmospheric Research figure [click to enlarge] charts the Palmer Drought Severity Index [PDSI] where “a reading of -4 or below is considered extreme drought.”  The PDSI in the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl spiked very briefly to -6, but otherwise rarely exceeded -3 for the decade (see here).

The 2010 NCAR study, which Climate Progress reported on here, notes “By the end of the century, many populated areas, including parts of the United States, could face readings in the range of -8 to -10, and much of the Mediterranean could fall to -15 to -20. Such readings would be almost unprecedented.”

The NOAA study should be especially sobering to those in the MidEast and around the Mediterranean since they clearly face some of the most extreme drying in the entire world in the coming decades. “The question has been whether this projected drying has already begun to occur in winter, the most important season for water resources,” Hoerling said. “The answer is yes.”

Friedman is one of the few national columnists (along with Krugman) to write regularly on climate issue (see “Exclusive Interview: Tom Friedman On The Urgency of Climate Action and Clean Energy Deployment“). He concludes:

As Lester Brown, the president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of “World on the Edge,” notes, 20 years ago, using oil-drilling technology, the Saudis tapped into an aquifer far below the desert to produce irrigated wheat, making themselves self-sufficient. But now almost all that water is gone, and Saudi wheat production is, too. So the Saudis are investing in farm land in Ethiopia and Sudan, but that means they will draw more Nile water for irrigation away from Egypt, whose agriculture-rich Nile Delta is already vulnerable to any sea level rise and saltwater intrusion.

If you ask “what are the real threats to our security today,” said Brown, “at the top of the list would be climate change, population growth, water shortages, rising food prices and the number of failing states in the world. As that list grows, how many failed states before we have a failing global civilization, and everything begins to unravel?”

Hopefully, we won’t go there. But, then, we should all remember that quote attributed to Leon Trotsky: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Well, you may not be interested in climate change, but climate change is interested in you.

Folks, this is not a hoax. We and the Arabs need to figure out — and fast — more ways to partner to mitigate the environmental threats where we can and to build greater resiliency against those where we can’t. Twenty years from now, this could be all that we’re talking about.

The time to act is now.

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22 Responses to Must-Read: Tom Friedman On Climate Change And ‘The Other Arab Spring’

  1. Are we sure that a stable Middle East is what the rich honchos in the US really want? I suspect that they’re OK with the Middle East just slightly unstable enough for them to give them a pretext to enter the region and cut various lucrative deals.

    — frank

  2. Dick Smith says:

    For most people, food prices (developed world) and food scarcity (less developed world) will be the tip of spear on that long list of “worst impacts” from a plus-2C world. The Tunisian “fruit vendor” angle was a terrific lead that I’ve not seen anywhere else.

  3. How long have we been saying “the time to act is now”?

  4. Mark E says:

    “Twenty years from now, this could be all that we’re talking about.”


  5. prokaryotes says:

    The domino analogy is nice, but climate disruption is much more creepy, affecting every species-country to a different degree.

    On the bottom line

    We have a win if developing countries thrive with the clean industrial revolution, because they then do not use up the last drops of oil. Actually we have to not only become independent of oil on our own, but the world. Otherwise a unsustainable growth in the developing world is likely to overshadow any climate action done in the developed world.

    So i rather have Iran use nuclear (like Obama suggest in his latest memo). Actually we have to outlaw fossil fuel combustioning. If we are serious with climate actions.

    Instead we build a clean infrastructure and adopt negative carbon strategies – technologies like Biochar

  6. prokaryotes says:

    Ofc a much better solution would be to adopt clean technologies like solar, wind, geothermal, wave, thermal energies – instead of nuclear. I wonder why this is not discussed yet. Iran could go 100% clean techn. Then they could still build capacities and ship energy in neighbouring countries.

  7. wili says:

    I’m not always thrilled with Friedman’s work. He can sometimes be a bit cornucopian.

    This seems better, but he missed a major impact of GW on the Arab Spring–Egypt, one of the world’s top importers of wheat, suddenly was cut off from its main source of that vital grain, Russia, because of the extreme heat wave that swept through that region and severely limited their crop.

    GW and other systems spiraling out of control will lead to ever greater instability in the world. The ME and North Africa are, of course, ideal places for solar power. This region could be leading the way in a solar revolution. Mostly, though, they are still addicted, as are we all, to oil and NG–which along with coal, we need to start referring to not simply as ffs, but as what they are–death fuels.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You can see the real priorities of the Empire when Iran develops nuclear energy, as is its inalienable Right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty)allows full IAEA inspection, declares nuclear weapons ‘un-Islamic’and calls for (and is ignored by the Empire and the Western MSM)a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, yet is subject to brutal, extra-territorial, sanctions, its customers are bullied and intimidated into collaboration by the Empire, its scientists are murdered, its country attacked by Western financed terrorists like MEK and Jundallah, and computer warfare is waged against it. Oh, and Israel and the US trangress international law and the UN Charter by endlessly threatening military aggression.

  9. prokaryotes says:

    Scientists blame climate change for spread of newly discovered virus, which causes deformed and stillborn lambs

  10. Spike says:

    On Monday, European Commission officials highlighted the extent of the drought which has effected much of western Europe, but the Iberian peninsula, and parts of North Africa, particularly.

    “A severe rain shortage has been observed since December in Spain, Portugal and Morocco, the driest period in our climatological record for southern Spain,” the commission said, in comments which contrast with improved hopes for winter crops in the US.

    “The cumulated average precipitation deficit since October 1 [has reached] 300mm for Portugal and 155mm for Spain,” levels approaching those of “the most extreme years”.–4327.html

  11. Jarosław says:

    Why there is Czechoslovaka, Yugoslavia and Soviet Union on the first picture?

  12. Joe Romm says:

    Guess NOAA used an old map.

  13. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Friedman seems the best of a piss-poor generation of MSM print journalists, but he’s yet to get near to addressing the predicament or demanding an effective US response.

    For instance, he quotes Femia:
    “There are a few ways that the U.S. can be on the right side of history in the Arab world. One is to enthusiastically and robustly support democratic movements.” And then adds:
    The other is to invest in climate-adaptive infrastructure and improvements in water management — to make these countries more resilient in an age of disruptive climate change.

    In reality, there is no way the US can be “on the right side of history” regarding climate destabilization. Its intransigence as the leading superpower in UN negotiations has not only already caused massive damage and suffering, it has committed us to worsening extreme events in the coming decades.

    The desperate need for ending that US intransigence, accepting the liabilities of its historic emissions, and agreeing an equitable and efficient climate treaty – is not mentioned by Friedman, but it is what is required for the US to stop deepning its culpability for the coming genocide by serial famines.



  14. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    And when the climate crisis drives the refugee count into the hundreds of millions, all of whom knowing who’s to blame for the mess, my grandkids will have to deal with the consequences. I can’t talk to them about it, they being much too young to understand, nor can I discuss it with their parents, who are deep into denial.

  15. Mark E says:

    Maybe they’re waiting for the rest of us to declare nukes to be anti-Christian….

  16. Mark E says:

    Go travel…. see the haves and have nots. Start a blog and facebook page about it. All your friends and family will perk up.

    When you see grenades on belts of soldiers outside rich walled neighborhoods, and squalor across the street, or the swimming pools in Israel across the wall from Palestinians conserving every drop of drinking water in clay jars and plates, you’ll rivet their attention.

  17. ltr says:

    Thomas Friedman is among the worst of columnists, wildly prejudiced, wildly arrogant, wildly inane, wildly untrustworthy. I suggest not jumping because Friedman finally writes a column that is not horribly prejudiced for war against Muslims and the like. I cannot imagine a columnist who has done more harm, from Iraq on.

  18. ltr says:

    How many deaths in the Middle East did Friedman support and applaud? But, the guy cares about the temperature. I am appalled.

  19. There is hope, albeit slim, that the Middle Eastern countries will adapt concentrated solar power (CSP) technology. One of the people behind the new Gemasolar CSP plant in Spain is a prince of Jordan.

    CSP with molten-salt technology allows for at least 1,000 times more 24-7-365 solar electric production in desert climates than is needed to provide for all of a typical Levant county’s need, including the desalinization of sea water.

    Concerning Friedman — don’t get too excited because he has finally climbed on the let’s-do-something-about-climate-change bandwagon, or connected a couple of obvious dots. He was a big promoter of the war in Iraq, among other things, and clearly has an agenda concerning Israel and Iran.

  20. ltr says:

    I thought carefully about this post and realize that this shows a moral short-coming in that gushing about a column by a thoroughly immoral writer who happens to write what is on the surface agreeable on a single matter does not in any way make up for all the immorality of years of previous posts.

    Thomas Friedman is no environmentalist at all, only a pretender here covering for being a destroying militarist for years and years.