Rising Temperatures in the Middle East

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Jon Alterman: Professor Elfatih Eltahir is the Breene M. Kerr Professor of Hydrology and Climate and a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His work looks at climate change and its impact on communities and on human habitation, and how they might adapt to increasingly extreme climate events, with a special focus on the Middle East. Professor Eltahir, thank you for joining us on Babel.

Elfatih Eltahir: You're welcome.

Jon Alterman: You write about how not only is temperature going up, but we're also seeing increasing variability and rainfall and potentially greater droughts, and not only how that's happening broadly, but also how that affects individual communities. So far, people have adapted to climate change. Do you think that communities’ ability to adapt to climate change is going away? Will this process speed up so that we're going to fall behind the curve?

Elfatih Eltahir: As the global scale, I don't think the global community is doing enough to address the challenge of climate change. I have recently written a short piece, when Covid-19 came up, and suddenly you see all these governments around the world taking action. I called it, "the power of here and now." I argued that the reason that action is being taken is because Covid-19 is here, and its impact is now. Contrast that to climate change, where I said, "Climate change, in the minds of many people, is about something that's going to happen over there and then."

Jon Alterman: Is this something you feel can be reversed or is it a question of arresting climate change at its current place?

Elfatih Eltahir: I think it's the latter. It's more about taking enough action so that the impacts of climate change would be manageable for different societies, especially the more vulnerable societies around the world.

Jon Alterman: And implicit in that is the possibility that there will be large populations where climate change is unmanageable and places will be unfit for human habitation.

Elfatih Eltahir: If we continue in the current business as usual pathway—which I described earlier as we are not taking sufficient action—then those possibilities could become reality. Some of the research in my group tried to specifically highlight some of those examples with the objective of informing society enough so that we could impact the policy formulation process and would basically result in action.

Jon Alterman: A lot of your work has focused on southwest Asia and east Africa. You were born in the Sudan. How much of your focus is because this is the world that you grew up knowing and how much of it is because as you look around the world, the most profound consequences of climate change are going to be in essentially what we think of as the Middle East and the Nile Basin?

Elfatih Eltahir: I think a little bit of both. Naturally, I am inclined to look at problems in regions of the world that I am more familiar with. It adds credibility to the work, if for example I look at how climate change impacts the Nile, while I grew up just a few hundred meters from the Nile. I know exactly the kind of societies that live in Egypt and Sudan and Ethiopia. So, when I work on trying to support how climate change impacts that region, that brings a lot of credibility to the work.

I say that because it's important that our projections have credibility and stand the test of time, so that we reinforce the trust society would have in science and scientific projections.

Jon Alterman: One of the interesting papers that you've written talks about the impact of climate change on Hajj, on the Muslim pilgrimage, which moves around the year with a lunar calendar. Sometimes it's in the summer. When it is in the summer, as you've written, sometimes it becomes intolerable for people to be outside for hours at a time, which the pilgrimage requires. Was that a surprise to people when they saw that paper?

Elfatih Eltahir: I don't know if it's really a surprise, but it did get a lot of interest. Hajj is a very important global event. There are about two billion Muslims. For many of them, a life dream is to be able to perform that obligation if you can. You get about two million people coming to Mecca during the season of Hajj. As you described, it moves according to the lunar calendar. When it comes in winter, heat distress and climate change may not be a significant issue, but it moves such that there are times in which it comes in the summer.

When it comes in the summer, you have two million people coming. A significant fraction of them are people who are elderly, who cannot really withstand significant heat distress. So, what we did is we projected what kind of conditions that these people are going to experience. Especially some of the rituals of Hajj, they have to be done outdoors. If Hajj was all about doing prayers inside mosques, then those could be air conditioned, hotels are air conditioned, but some of the most important aspects of Hajj must be done outdoors.

That exposes this large population of people to basically natural conditions that, if we keep on in the ‘business as usual,’ those natural conditions may limit the ability of people to perform Hajj. Or it could be why the authorities in Saudi Arabia may decide to limit the number of people who could perform Hajj. Both would resonate with a lot of people. For a lot of people around the world, that's maybe the most significant reason that they would hear about how climate change is going to impact their lives.

Jon Alterman: My non-scientific understanding of what you talk about is when the wet bulb temperature is about 35 degrees centigrade. My understanding of ‘wet bulb’ is that it's a measurement of mugginess, when it's 100 percent humidity and about 90 degrees Fahrenheit—or 35 degrees centigrade—so that sweating doesn't help you at all because the air is already saturated. At some point, after more than six hours, people in well ventilated spaces start passing out. Is that accurate?

Elfatih Eltahir: In general, when people talk about global warming, they talk about the global temperature. Which is just regular temperature. There is another type of temperature which we call the ‘wet bulb’ temperature. As you described it, it is the degree of mugginess and its function of temperature and humidity.

Let me give you an example in the context of the Middle East. The capital of Saudi Arabia is Riyadh, in the middle of the desert. A significant city in the Middle East is Dubai. Dubai is in the Gulf. The temperature in Riyadh is much hotter than the temperature in Dubai, in general. People know that. However, the wet bulb temperature—which has temperature and humidity—in Dubai is significantly higher than Riyadh.

In our research, we focus on the wet bulb temperature and not regular temperature. The reason is because the wet bulb temperature has a direct relationship to the physiology of the human being.

In our research, by focusing on the wet bulb temperature, we identified three regions that we think are the hottest spots for global warming. The first region is the area around the Persian Gulf. The second region is the area in the Ganges Valley in northern India. The third region is the North China Plain, which is in northeast China. These three areas, even in the current climate, these are hot. If you ask in the current climate which areas received the most significant heat distress, these are the three regions.

We are projecting into the future. We did a series of three coordinated studies on these three regions, in which we projected that in the ‘business as usual’ scenario for these three areas, the magnitude of the wet bulb temperature would approach dangerous levels that have not been observed in the current climate levels. We emphasize that if people are interested in heat distress, then the wet bulb temperature is the right variable to focus on.

Our first study that received a lot of attention was the study that showed that the cities around the Persian Gulf, places like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Dhahran, areas that even under the current climate are quite hot in terms of the wet bulb temperature. It's hot and humid. Many of the nationals of those countries, even under the current climate, leave during summer to spend time in the Mediterranean and in Europe.

Those locations—with the continuation of the trend of global warming—would reach magnitudes of temperature that would be unbearable for humans. That's the work that received significant attention.

Jon Alterman: There's been a lot of reporting about how hot things get in Iraq and southern Iraq, especially during the summer. Plus, there are electricity outages, which means that people lose air conditioning. Are there parts of Iraq and southern Iran that are as affected as the southern coast of the Gulf? Or are there aspects of the weather that make it seem—even though it's hot—not as bad as it might be?

Elfatih Eltahir: The humidity. The humidity is the difference. In southern Iraq, the air blows into places like Baghdad. It usually blows from the desert areas. In this scenario of looking at heat distress, desert air is not as bad. Because the desert air is very hot, but it's also very dry. So, when you combine the temperature and the humidity, the wet bulb temperature for desert cities is not as high as in cities where you have both heat and humidity.

For example, our projections for Riyadh in Saudi Arabia is that although the temperatures may approach 60 degrees centigrade, very high temperatures, the wet bulb temperature will not be at dangerous levels because of the dryness. We humans are equipped to deal with hot and dry environments, if we have enough water. If you keep hydrating yourself, you sweat, and the sweat evaporates, and that cools your body. That's a natural mechanism that humans operate to face heat distress. If you add humidity to that equation, it basically interferes with the natural process by which humans can cope with heat distress.

That's where there’s significant danger. The risk to human life emerges. Southern Iraq is not as bad as, for example, Basra. Basra is on the Gulf. Although because of the way the wind blows over places like Basra and Kuwait, they have what they call Shamal wind, which comes from the north. And if it's coming from the North, that's coming from desert areas. The origin of that is really dry air.

Kuwait is not as bad as Dhahran, Abu Dhabi, Doha, or Dubai. Even in places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, if you are in Abu Dhabi, it's one thing, but if you move to inland places like Al Ain, which is in Abu Dhabi, but in the middle of the desert, things are not as bad there.

When I wrote this paper, one of the things that we mentioned is that if someone is thinking about real estate and urban development in the long term—with a timescale of decades—if you want to locate a new city with growth of population, some of those inland spots may be attractive. Although we have to always say that places like UAE and Qatar and Saudi Arabia, they have the resources, and they have the energy sources to be able to afford enough air conditioning that would get them through the summer.

Jon Alterman: How do Middle Eastern governments respond when they see your work? Are they interested in steering it, sponsoring it, suppressing it? They're clearly producing hydrocarbons that produce greenhouse gases, and then they are suffering the consequences of it. What kind of conversations do you have with Middle Eastern governments?

Elfatih Eltahir: I think there is a lot of interest. There is recognition that these are important issues for the future of the countries. Some of our research is funded by some of the countries in the region. Not with a specific focus on these issues, but broadly on environmental issues. I think that, as I said earlier, some of these countries have mechanisms to cope with extreme heat. That's why I think the paper we did in south Asia may be the most significant. Not only because the people there are vulnerable, but also because places like India and China are significant players in the climate change mitigation business.

So, when we wrote those papers, we argued that this should inform the policy for places like India and China, who have the fastest growing emissions.

Jon Alterman: Partly because they're burning coal.

Elfatih Eltahir: Yes. Also, India is burning coal. Coal is a big, big issue as far as accelerating climate change. But we argued that the studies that we did should give people pause to think about the policies that they may take to limit emissions and to go more towards renewables, which will not only benefit the global climate for everyone, but they could also help their local population. Because eventually the industrialization in India and the energy needs and so on are driven by the desire to benefit their own population and to help the economic growth in the country. If you have some of the impacts of that—leading to really harming your own population—that I think brings a different dimension to the policy debate that they have about climate change.

Jon Alterman: Have you seen any direct impact of your work? Are you aware of a government changing what it does because it read some of your work and said, we have to take this seriously?

Elfatih Eltahir: I think the impact on policy doesn't come directly. But, for example, the paper I described about China, my students in my lab, when they first came from China, they were telling me that this gets attention on Chinese social media. People talked about it. Not only the people, but the individuals, the government. It had impacts in that sense of including awareness that there are dangers associated with climate change if people do not act. I think in that sense, there may be impacts that are indirect.

Another region that we have looked at in the Middle East and more recently is the area of the Mediterranean. That's another, we think of the Mediterranean as really a hot spot for climate change. We think the Mediterranean could experience significant droughts. It's already experiencing significant droughts. There is speculation that, for example, the drought that's in the eastern Mediterranean may have had some impact on the political development that happened in the last one or two decades.

Jon Alterman: The Syrian civil war.

Elfatih Eltahir: There are speculations about that. Some of our work showed that drought is part of a trend associated with climate change. You would expect to see more of it as the climate changes in the future. There are also significant impacts on the other side of the Mediterranean in places like Morocco and southern Spain, significant decline in precipitation. That has been something that we looked at.

Jon Alterman: Do you see a significant source of optimism that we're going to get ahead of this, that people are going to start paying attention to this kind of work? Or does it feel like you are shouting into the wind?

Elfatih Eltahir: I think there are reasons for optimism. When you talk to young people. When I see young researchers in my group, graduate students and their views. They express it in writing. They participate in the dialogue that we have at the university. Also, just the activism among young people, I think is significantly more, you could see more significantly among young people. Some of it has to do with who is better educated about the topic, but also some of it has do with the realization from that generation that this is really their problem. They're going to be here longer than the older generation. They are going to experience some of these impacts in their own lives. There is that pragmatic and realistic view of things. So, when I see that, I see reasons for optimism.

Jon Alterman: Do you have a special interest or a special effort to target young Middle Eastern populations, young Gulf populations? You have Arabic at your disposal. Certainly energy use in the Gulf, partly because of climate is very, very high. As you know from being there, there are some people who act indifferently to the climate impacts of their actions. Do you have a special interest or a special effort to target young populations in the Gulf that in many ways are going to be living this future?

Elfatih Eltahir: There is some effort there. The main avenue I am taking on this is that with every significant paper that comes out, I put a significant effort in trying not only to publish it in academic journals, but to share it more broadly, talking to journalists, making simple videos. Trying to spread the word.

Jon Alterman: We will have a link to your website in our show notes. If people are interested, they should certainly look at that. It is a very rich source of information. A lot of it, as you say, is extremely tangible related to the way people in societies live. Dr. Elfatih Eltahir, from MIT, thank you very much for joining us on Babel.

Elfatih Eltahir: Thank you, John. Thank you very much for inviting me and I enjoyed the conversation with you.