Karim Elgendy: Climate Diplomacy in the Middle East

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Jon Alterman: Karim, welcome to Babel.

Karim Elgendy: Thanks, Jon. Thank you for having me.

Jon Alterman: What role do you see climate playing in regional conflict? Peter Schwartzstein, the journalist, has a book coming out in the fall with the subtitle On the Front Lines of Climate Violence. Do we have to think about climate in terms of contributing to instability in the Middle East?

Karim Elgendy: Climate has been considered within academic and policy circles as a threat multiplier. However, this conversation has reached no conclusive evidence that climate is intrinsically a cause of conflict. In other words, there's no causality between climate change on the one hand and violent conflict on the other. The example that is often cited is the conflict in Syria. There's certainly no doubt that an increase in temperature and a drought in Northeast Syria led to the migration of subsistence farmers away from areas like Al-Hasakah and Raqqa towards the main urban areas further to the west in Homs, Halab, and Daraa.

This forced rural to urban migration resulting from the drought—which anecdotally was the worst drought Syria had experienced in the last 800 years, according to some estimates by NASA—has done two things. One, it has obviously relocated 800,000 people into new areas where they have no jobs. They have no skills. There are no services for them, and they also lost all their wealth because 85 percent of all privately owned cattle reportedly died.

Now, does that lead to conflict? Does that create enough instability? Does it create enough social discontent within those cities that they have moved to the outskirts of? That's still subject to debate. I would say there is some correlation between the currents of climate change impacts, specifically for the most vulnerable amongst us, but there is no causality.

Jon Alterman: How should we think about climate as an international threat to stability? Certainly, there's been increasing criticism of Turkey building dams and causing some of the drought in downstream areas, including Iraq. Is climate creating a Middle East that is more likely to have international conflict?

Karim Elgendy: If one looks at the literature from the last few decades in terms of the historical record of cases of collaboration between nation-states within the MENA region, and cases of conflict between them over those resources, one finds more cases for collaboration than cases for conflict. That suggests that there might be hope that nations in the region will come together and perhaps collectively overcome this particular challenge.

Climate change impacts will admittedly get worse, and this ability to collaborate in the face of such challenges will be something that we will have to wait and see. The other issue is that conflicts between nations are slightly different than conflicts within certain nations. Conflicts can sometimes overlay with certain schisms between sectarian parts of a country, say for example in Iraq or Lebanon where those sectarian fault lines do exist. Any overlaying of climate impact differentiation across those dividing lines could result in worsening sectarian relationships within those countries.

Jon Alterman: Do the different aspects of climate change, like water shortages, rising temperatures, and increasingly strong storms, including dust storms, affect things in similar ways? Do they work the same way and provide the same accelerant to alienation as well as possibility for international coordination, or are they different?

Karim Elgendy: It really all depends on how they affect specific economic sectors. The main challenges from climate change aren't always the primary impacts of climate change. It's sometimes the secondary and even the tertiary impacts of climate change. If you look across the MENA region, the main impacts of climate change are an increase in the maximum temperature in the summer and an increase in the variability of rainfall. In other words, you get longer droughts, but also, when it does rain, it will rain more intensely and lead to flooding. There is also a reduction in overall precipitation where it does rain, as in the Levant and in parts of North Africa like the Atlas Mountains. While in the Gulf, you get slightly more precipitation from obviously a very low base.

That means certain impacts on certain economic sectors. Tourism, for example, will be hit pretty badly because less water for tourist activities and worse environmental conditions, in terms of increased temperature, will not draw as many tourists. But the sector that will be affected most in terms of productivity is agriculture. Agricultural productivity dropping will be a real issue, not just in terms of food security, but also because a lot of countries depend on cash crops. They export high-value produce to other countries and then import their main staples in order to feed their own populations.

Those sectors being affected will lead to two things: obviously, it will lead to a loss of jobs, but it will also lead to a reduction in GDP. This is where it gets really interesting in terms of how these socioeconomic impacts then translate into political impacts within the same nation.

I wouldn’t look at them as one primary impact and how it can lead to conflict directly. Rather, I would look at this cascading of impacts altogether. However, having said that, there is one climate change impact, albeit very long-term, that could independently disrupt a few things. The rise of sea levels globally could potentially create some disruptions in terms of coastlines and island disappearance, and it could force certain countries to redefine exclusive economic zones.

So that could lead to potential disputes overfishing, mineral resource extraction, et cetera. The one example I would give here is from the Gulf. It has hundreds of small islands and if they disappear, then a re-delineation between the countries might be in order.

Jon Alterman: On the global side, you've written recently about the role that the Great Powers are playing in dealing with climate issues in the Middle East. How are they engaging in climate issues?

Karim Elgendy: So Great Power competition is certainly rising and in the Middle East specifically, there's this "perceived" withdrawal of the United States, and that has led to a number of players seeking more influence within the region. Whether that withdrawal is true or not, at least there's that perception.

Those Great Powers, specifically China and its Belt and Road Initiative, are trying to make forays. They're trying to have more influence within the region and in other regions around the world. And they do this by investing, providing technical support, and providing financial support for projects. As the project flows and finance flows have shifted towards less development aid and more climate aid or climate support, we're finding that climate has become one of those pawns and an infrastructure investment tool.

That is becoming more obvious in the case of the Global Gateway, which is a new infrastructure investment initiative by the European Union (EU), and the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII), which is a U.S.-led G7 initiative. They both have climate at the core of what they want to do. They have it as one of their guiding lights, if you like.

However, after 10 years of operating the Belt and Road Initiative, last year there was a rethink. One of the current guiding principles of this new vision for the Belt and Road Initiative was to have a greener Belt and Road Initiative, which means more renewable energy projects and more investment into greener infrastructure.

I think that creates competition between those major players in areas that are currently devoid of any collective action, any partnership, or any shared vision over what climate action looks like and could result in more fragmentation because it leads to more fragmented action rather than collective action. If China comes in with its own tech, its own standards, and its own workers, then it will produce something in one country that is significantly different, and certainly not coordinated in any way, from a similar project that is done in the country next door and funded by the PGII or by the Global Gateway.

Jon Alterman: Certainly, you could have some countries building gas power plants, which are better than coal but do not have a much higher carbon impact than solar, wind, or something else.

Karim Elgendy: Absolutely, and we saw that initially before China did that revision in that some countries were inclined to follow where the money was. If China was providing a vision with no strings attached and with minimal climate action, then there were countries being forced to make that choice. If there was financing available from the Belt and Road Initiative and the terms were agreeable, then the question was, “Why do we bother with all these issues in terms of emissions associated with the projects and commitments by the EU or the U.S.-led PGII?”

However, now I think all of the infrastructure investment initiatives are basically moving in the same direction. They all see that the finance flows are going in that way, and many of the development projects now have a green color of some sort. 

Jon Alterman: You've been around all these climate conferences and seen climate diplomacy. Is climate statecraft different from regular diplomacy in your mind?

Karim Elgendy: Yes. In climate negotiations, statecraft is very present. Countries are there to protect their own interests in this new world and in this new economy which is being forged as we speak. But at the same time, this is a collective challenge, so there is a constant reminder for all of us that we're doing this for future generations. I don't think any of those who are in the negotiation rooms will live to see the impacts themselves.

But there's this higher responsibility that some of those countries and some of those negotiators do have towards future generations. We saw that when John Kerry, during the signing of the Paris Agreement, brought his granddaughter who sat on his lap as he was signing it. I think that was a gesture for all of us that this is for them.

Having said that, diplomacy and the use of climate to advance national interests are also always there. Countries use the goodwill that climate does provide to win friends, and you see that sometimes in certain investments. Even by medium powers trying to invest in more developing economies to advance their own interests and increase their influence.

Jon Alterman: But it also feels to me that in climate diplomacy the blocs are very different. There's a near-term cost and a long-term benefit. It feels to me like it requires a very certain kind of diplomat who won't be able to harvest the fruits of his or her efforts.

Karim Elgendy: The blocs are largely along the lines of developing versus developed, and the developed economies have always argued that they recognize that they have a bigger responsibility for historical emissions. But at the same time, they argue that if we don't work together, there's no way that climate action by only Europe, North America, and others can reverse the increase in carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

The emissions from China, for example, are too high for West-led action to be sufficient. However, on the other hand, the developing economies are arguing, "Well, we haven't created this mess, and it shouldn't be upon us to bear the load when, in fact, we're trying to get to a kind of basic economic development that the West has enjoyed for decades, centuries."

Jon Alterman: To the contrary, in many cases, they're arguing for loss and damage. That they be compensated for the consequences of climate change in their own countries, and that their transition to more environmentally sensitive technologies be subsidized by other countries.

Karim Elgendy: This whole argument over the delineation between the developing and developed was largely put to rest when the principle called the “common but differentiated responsibilities” was agreed to within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. What was agreed is that we will all work together, but we will work together in a voluntary way, as you can see in the Paris Agreement, where we collectively make sure that the temperature doesn't exceed two degrees, but ideally not 1.5 degrees—a goal which there is no chance we will meet at this point.

But at the same time, each and every one of us, countries or parties to the agreement, will do what we can. So, you add it all up and it doesn't add up right. It comes to three degrees. You add it all up and it comes to 2.7 degrees, and it has never bridged that gap between the collective action and the individual country action. This is the conundrum at the heart of climate governance today: that we can’t force any nation to do anything. We failed miserably in doing so in Copenhagen a few years ago. The Paris Agreement has got this fault at the heart of it, and it relies on shaming countries and lobbying.

One more point I wanted to mention, in addition to these two main groups, the developed economies and the developing economies, there are the low-lying islands. They are often a collective of countries that is deemed most at risk and that is lobbying for the highest level of ambition.

They, in a way, represent our conscious because they argue, for example, for the 1.5-degree limit rather than the 2-degree limit, because they are the ones who will see that impact most and will suffer from the consequences most. As a matter of fact, many of them will have to move. Kiribati recently bought land in Fiji for that reason.

Jon Alterman: But the third group of countries are energy producers, many of which are not in the Western-developed economy camp. Countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Middle Eastern countries that arguably have a greater interest in stability in the region but have their own view about how long the world should be using carbon fuels. How do they see climate diplomacy? How do they see regional diplomacy as it connects to climate diplomacy?

Karim Elgendy: On the Gulf producers’ position, there is a recognition that the world has decided that we move away from fossil fuels. Now, what does that transition look like? What does the curve look like in terms of demands and reduction of demand past the 2030s and beyond? That's subject to debate between the International Energy Agency, OPEC, et cetera. But certainly, the producers would like to make sure that there is a market for fossil fuels for as long as possible, and they make a strong economic and moral case for that.

They argue that their oil and gas is the cheapest per barrel for extraction. They also argue that their own extraction has the lowest carbon footprint compared to any other extraction, which is about a seventh of the total emissions of any given barrel. So, in a way, they would argue that they should be the last producer standing.

But from a diplomatic position, those countries place themselves within the context of the Paris Agreement and say that they're going to do their part. They have net-zero carbon goals by 2060 and 2050 in some cases. But at the same time, they want to make sure that they will continue producing. So, in a coincidence that can only happen in the Gulf, we have internal decarbonization, which releases more oil and gas that would have otherwise been consumed internally and is made available for export to the global market. It's being made available and pushed out, essentially, as fast as possible.

The other twist to this is that the money that is generated—this extra cash which is generated by releasing a few million extra barrels of oil from the Gulf into the global market—is then pumped back into the economy to fund a move away from fossil fuels. In other words, diversification and decarbonization.

So, we have this race against time where countries in the region are trying to decarbonize and diversify but pumping every drop of oil to fund that. In other words, oil has become a necessity and an urgent one to facilitate the existence of this region in a world where no oil is required.

Jon Alterman: The head of Aramco said last month that he expected that 80 percent of Saudi Arabia's markets will be in the Global South in 2050. Does that sound right to you, that the Western world is likely to decarbonize, but most people in the world will still have very carbon-intensive lives?

Karim Elgendy: There is that too, of course. So, on the one hand, demand from the Global North will decrease because there is a need for higher energy independence, as you see, for example, in the EU, which has reduced its use of gas significantly—20 percent in one year. But there's also an increase in population, urbanization, and standard of living expected in Africa and Asia. That might also contribute to this increasing demand for fossil fuels.

What those regions should really do is leapfrog this entire process and achieve energy security and greener growth by skipping over the fossil fuel stage, and moving directly into development that is built around renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Jon Alterman: Are Middle Eastern countries uniquely willing to sacrifice for climate goals because the region is more susceptible to climate change? Or is the Middle East typical in that, at this point, no government is really willing to make big sacrifices for climate goals?

Karim Elgendy: I would argue that there is no government in the world that is willing to make significant sacrifices for climate goals. The way climate governance works is every nation for itself. Only when countries realize that it's in their interest to join that bandwagon and to shape new rules for the global economy, rather than become a rule-taker a few years down the line, do they actually take real action. It's not a sacrifice. It's actually for their own political, geopolitical, and economic gain.

With the minor exception of some Scandinavian and European countries that consider their historical responsibility to be an additional driver for climate action and for fighting climate change, no nation actually does that. Despite the dire future that faces the Middle East and North Africa, the region has too many challenges that prevent it from actually sacrificing anything at this point. It hardly can make ends meet, let alone sacrifice current standards of living for future standards of living. There are too many fires in the region for it to think in that mindset.

Jon Alterman: Do you think there's an incident that could provide an inflection point for the region, or is that just unlikely?

Karim Elgendy: The more we see extreme weather events and the more it hurts, the more this could lead to an inflection point. For example, the economic calculation for investing in stormwater management in some Gulf cities was entirely revisited after an actual flood and urban flooding did happen, and it led to significant economic losses. So, this is when you start thinking about it. Perhaps we should consider climate more seriously because this is actually in our economic interest.

Jon Alterman: Karim Elgendy, thank you very much for joining us on Babel.

Karim Elgendy: Thank you.