Earth Day: Lessons for Environmental Cooperation

In 1970, Americans could see, feel, and smell the effects of pollution in their daily lives. Rivers were catching on fire. Smog hung over cities like a thick fog. That year, Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) launched a bipartisan effort on environmental issues by organizing a day of teach-ins in campuses across the United States. But because rich and poor, conservative and liberal, and urban and rural dwellers were affected by environmental degradation in their daily lives, 20 million people—10 percent of the U.S. population at the time—turned out. That is how the first Earth Day was born. It was the largest demonstration in history until the George Floyd protests 50 years later. The day sustained the momentum needed to inspire a flurry of legislation to protect the environment and the people that depend on it.

The Middle East is facing a similar moment. Environmental degradation, pollution, and severe water insecurity is affecting the health and livelihoods of large swaths of the population. Thousands from Lebanon to Iraq have gone into the streets to demand change to the environmental degradation they see, smell, and fall ill from. In 2015, the “You Stink” movement united tens of thousands of Lebanese to protest egregious waste mismanagement and corruption in the country. In southern Iraq, thousands took to the streets in 2018 every night for nearly three months, frustrated by shortages of electricity, water and jobs. That summer, 118,000 people were hospitalized due to illness stemming from Basra, Iraq’s poor water quality. This is a moment to galvanize and sustain environmental cooperation at the global and national level. Much like the first Earth Day, linking environmental protection to people’s daily concerns will be key to promoting positive change.

Photo: -/AFP via Getty Images

Photo: -/AFP via Getty Images

At the global level, inspiring cooperation on the need to reduce fossil fuel emissions and other issues in the Global South means acknowledging the way environmental degradation is currently affecting individual livelihoods and countries’ finances. Many in the Middle East and elsewhere are still fighting for clean air and water. Iraqis are still suffering from the effects of U.S.-constructed burn pits. Deprioritizing these concerns risks losing the global cooperation needed on other strategic issues. The widening chasm in perceptions between the West and the rest is growing from climate change mitigation to Ukraine. For much of the Global South, neither issue is their fight.

Global South countries see themselves on the hook for huge costs of dealing with climate change that others’ emissions have caused. Representatives from some of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries have conveyed the devastating impacts that climate change is having on their communities. According to a 2022 Climate Finance Regional Briefing, 71 percent of international climate finance to the MENA region from 2003 to 2021 went to mitigation projects—to reduce or eliminate fossil fuel emissions—and less than 15 percent of that went to water and sanitation projects. For the Middle East, the need is to connect issues of climate change and the need for clean water and air. Doing so could garner more cooperation and financing.

For example, moving toward cleaner energy in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria is not just a climate change issue. From Lebanon to Iraq, the constant hum of generators spew fumes that many experts worry could cause cancer and exacerbate the severity and frequency respiratory illnesses and cardiovascular disease. A lack of more resilient and adaptive agriculture practices are leaving farmlands fallow, potentially exacerbating climate change and displacing millions to overstressed cities. Failure to effectively treat waste and wastewater sends thousands of people to hospitals, reduces the potential for treated wastewater to replace scarce groundwater, and adds to methane emissions—80 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide. Connecting the less tangible issue of climate change to these local concerns will help to mainstream climate-related concerns in all development projects. That will not only help in moving closer to the trillions in financing needed to address climate change adaptation, but perhaps more importantly, instill goodwill in an increasingly polarized world.

At the national level, environmental civil society and reform-minded politicians are trying to connect environmental protection to issues like public health and livelihoods in the Middle East but they work in a difficult environment. Providing financial support to governments on adaptation and environmental degradation issues is a start, but many of the problems are rooted in complex politics. Often, years of conflict has divided the population they seek to unite around these shared issues. These actors also need support to advance strategic communications to reach a broader swath of their populations, to protect themselves from surveillance and repression, and to develop tools for data collection. Many government officials are keen to reform, but they face vested interests and populations resistant to change. These government officials and technocrats will also need support connecting environmental issues to people’s health and livelihoods in the short and long term to affect change.

At the global and national level, reinventing environmental protection by connecting it to people’s daily struggles and supporting those trying to make that linkage in their communities is essential. The first Earth Day was a success because the organizers had a concept that everyone could wrap their head around and wanted to fight for. The Middle East is even more ripe for this moment. Many countries have not witnessed the economic prosperity that other industrialized countries have, and have noxious air and contaminated water. In fact, water and dirty fuel oil have become extortionately expensive. Solidarity in resolving those issues could better build the unity and trust needed to tackle the environment and myriad of international challenges.

It is Earth Day because environmental degradation affects everyone. Supporting others in their struggle for clean air and water instills the goodwill needed to confront not only climate change, but also other global issues.

Natasha Hall is a senior fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.