As the UN is set to discuss climate change, the youth of 150 countries are taking to the streets to raise awareness. In the Middle Eastern, the issue is however still secondary to security and jobs. In Saudi Arabia 25 per cent of the population suffers from asthma. In 2100 going outdoors in the Persian Gulf could be "deadly". Small signs of hope are visible in the UAE.
Beirut (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The 74th United Nations General Assembly is currently getting underway in New York to discuss, among other things, the fight against climate change and sustainability.
This past weekend, young people took to the streets in over 150 countries in the world, from the United States to Malaysia, to raise awareness among governments about global warming and threats to the planet's survival.
In the Middle Eastern and the Arab world, where pollution is among the highest, the problem seems to be still marginal and people, even the young, appear fatalistic, an attitude best described by Lebanese environmentalist Nouhad Awwad: "Climate change? The most usual answer is that it is a question in the hands of God and we cannot do anything about it."
Unlike their peers in most of the planet, only few Arab youth came out into the streets last Friday for the climate. Of the 150 countries involved, only seven were Arab, and participation was marginally at best, experts note.
Moreover, the environment is not a winning issue in elections in a region where "security and economy" are the main issues, where war is part of everyday life in many places, where individual freedoms are in short supply, and where work, food and health care are hard to come by. In this part of the world the environment is often seen, however erroneously, as a "western luxury", a problem of the "rich".
For Awwad who is a member of the Arab Youth Climate Movement (AYCM), environmental issues do exist but the priority, like security, lie elsewhere.
Recent studies released yesterday at the UN indicate that the 2015-2019 period will be the warmest on record, ever. According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), the average temperature was 1.1 degrees higher than in the 1850-1900 period.
The consequences could turn out to be disastrous, especially for the Arab world, because the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) will experience the highest temperature rise, up to "twice the world average", said analyst Sagatom Saha, speaking to L'Orient-Le Jour newspaper.
Environmentalists and experts note that it is necessary to make the population more aware, starting with young people, using social media, schools and other meeting places, to discuss issues and exchange ideas.
One place where this should happen is Qatar, which used up all its renewable energies for 2019 in 42 days. The small emirate is the world's leading producer of greenhouse gases proportional to the population, "three times higher than the United States", according to National Geographic.
More generally, the Gulf states as a whole lead in terms of air and water pollution. If everyone on earth lived like the residents of Qatar, we would need “ten planets" in terms of resource use and emissions, scientists warn.
This is due to these countries’ high dependency on crude oil and natural gas for their wealth, as evinced by the smoke rising from Saudi, Emirati and Kuwaiti refineries.
Hydrocarbons are leading pollutants. A study by Nature Climate Change from October 2015 found that being outdoors in the Persian Gulf region could be "deadly".
The effects on human health are beginning to be felt now. In Saudi Arabia, a quarter of the population (more than 8 million people) suffers from asthma. One of the highest rates in the world, followed by Kuwait and Qatar with an average of about 20 per cent.
Despite the negative picture, there are some faint signs of hope thanks to initiatives, albeit limited and local, by governments and individual citizens. For example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is pushing Vision 2021, a national programme to improve air quality, preserve water resources and boost the green economy. Saudi Arabia has adopted a similar initiative as part of its Vision 2030 plan, which aims at breaking free from hydrocarbons.
However, such responses are inadequate compared to what seems to be increasingly crucial for the future of the planet.