Bush, Blair en de blitzkrieg in Irak

 
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Door Khaled Diab

Gezien de verreikende gevolgen van de Amerikaanse invasie van Irak, laten we het idee om Bush en Blair voor het gerecht te brengen nieuw leven inblazen.

Iraq_Tikrit_2942924b

Dinsdag 17 juni 2014

Hoe je er ook naar kijkt, de gebeurtenissen hebben een spectaculaire wending genomen. De Islamitische Staat in Irak en de Levant (ISIS), in Syrië in het gedrang gekomen door een offensief van Syrische opstandelingen, heeft sinds begin dit jaar, na de grens met Irak te zijn overgestoken, het noordwesten van dit land stukje bij beetje in handen gekregen.

Deze week is de campagne van ISIS in een stroomversnelling geraakt, waarbij de groepering de tweede stad van Irak, Mosoel, heeft
ingenomen, evenals Tikrit, de geboorteplaats van de voormalige Iraakse dictator Saddam Hoessein al-Tikriti, op een afstand van slechts 140 kilometer van de hoofdstad Bagdad.

Naar verluidt hebben de militanten de grensposten tussen Syrië en Irak uit de weg geruimd, wat van symbolische betekenis is, maar ook kan worden gezien als een teken dat de jihadistische beweging haar doel naderbij ziet komen van de vestiging van een islamitische staat in beide landen.

Als gevolg van het offensief van ISIS zijn honderdduizenden Irakezen, die al lang lijden onder alle gevechten, op de vlucht geslagen.
Het meest alarmerend is wellicht dat ISIS, in het Arabisch bekend onder de naam al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fīl-Iraq weh al-Sham, erin geslaagd is deze snelle verovering van noordwest-Irak te verwezenlijken met een krakkemikkige multinationale troepenmacht van slechts drie- tot vijfduizend strijders.

Hoe is dit kunnen gebeuren?

Als New York Times-columnist Thomas Friedman mag worden geloofd, lijkt dit het gevolg van een ideologische strijd tussen islamisten en milieuactivisten: “De echte ideeënstrijd… is de strijd die woedt tussen religieuze extremisten (soennieten zowel als sjiieten) en overtuigde milieuactivisten”, schreef hij.

Het verhaal dat ecostrijders in oorlog zijn met de zelfbenoemde soldaten van God is voor iedereen in het Midden-Oosten groot nieuws.

Het is waar dat het milieu in de regionale conflicten van hetomwater schreeuwende Midden-Oosten een steeds belangrijker onderwerp is en dat veel deskundigen voor de komende decennia ‘wateroorlogen’ voorspellen. Maar een andere vloeistof speelt de hoofdrol in de huidige problemen van Irak: olie.

Het zou makkelijk zijn Friedman, ooit een gevierd oorlogscorrespondent, af te doen als een excentriekeling op leeftijd die zijn realiteitszin volledig is kwijtgeraakt, maar zijn holle frasen zijn niet ongevaarlijk. Als invloedrijke ‘cheerleader’ – die in een beroemde uitspraak de Irakezen “suck on this” heeft voorgehouden – heeft hij publieke steun kunnen werven voor de
invasie en bezetting van Irak.

Maar wat deze jongste episode in een lange reeks van rampen duidelijk laat zien, is dat de Amerikaanse interventie in Irak een totale catastrofe is geweest, die zich sinds de plundering van Bagdad door de Mogollegers in 1258 niet meer op deze schaal heeft voorgedaan.

De grootschalige verwoesting van het land, de ontmanteling van het leger en de ineenstorting van het Baathregime hebben zo’n leemte achtergelaten dat het land is geïmplodeerd en er een burgeroorlog is uitgebroken, waardoor het terrein rijp is gemaakt voor radicale groeperingen die wilden profiteren van de chaos.

Het idee dat Amerika Irak er met overmacht toe zou kunnen dwingen een liberale en welvarende democratie te worden bleek net zo denkbeeldig als de niet-bestaande massavernietigingswapens die Saddam Hoessein volgens Washington in zijn bezit had.

Hoewel Irak onder Saddam Hoessein een onderdrukkend dystopia was dat behoefte had aan radicale veranderingen, kunnen zulke veranderingen niet van buitenaf worden opgelegd, en al helemaal niet met het geweer in de aanslag, door een eigengereide supermacht zonder vervolgscenario.

Het was de erkenning van de misleidende aard van deze misdadig roekeloze onderneming die in 2003 tientallen miljoenen bezorgde burgers over de hele wereld ertoe heeft gebracht de straat op te gaanomte betogen tegen de voorgenomen invasie. Deze leidde ook tot de ernstigste trans-Atlantische vertrouwenscrisis uit de recente geschiedenis, toen Washington België en andere kritische Europese landen de ‘As van de Wezels’ noemde.

Toch zette Washington destijds zijn zin door. Waarom?

Het korte antwoord luidt dat de oorlog nooit over vrijheid of democratie is gegaan – dat was slechts een marketingslogan. Het gingomhet kanaliseren van de Amerikaanse angst en woede na 9/11, teneinde de controle in handen te krijgen over de op één na grootste oliereserves in de wereld en bepaalde bedrijven te verrijken, op kosten van de belastingbetaler.

Als u ook maar enige twijfel koestert over deze realiteit, kijk dan eens naar de saai klinkende maar zeer belangrijke Executive Order
13303, die Amerikaanse firma’s feitelijk carte blanche geeftomin Irak ongestraft te doen wat ze willen.

Gezien de verreikende gevolgen van de Amerikaanse invasie en bezetting denk ik dat het belangrijk is het idee nieuw leven in te blazenomde verantwoordelijken – vooral George W. Bush en Tony Blair – voor het gerecht te brengen. Hoewel de schade hierdoor nooit ongedaan zal kunnen worden gemaakt, zou het de Irakezen niettemin enige genoegdoening bieden voor de verwoesting die de Brits-Amerikaanse invasie in hun land heeft aangericht.

Het zal ook een duidelijk signaal doen uitgaan dat dit soort gedrag niet thuishoort in een wereld die op zoek is naar orde, recht en stabiliteit.

Ik moet bekennen dat ik niet weetwat er tegen de ISIS kanworden ondernomen enwat er kanworden gedaanomde desintegratie van Irak te repareren. Ik weet alleen dat welke koers de buitenwereld ook zal volgen, een militaire interventie gepaard moet gaan met een internationaal mandaat en een helder plan voorwat er moet gebeuren als de “missie is volbracht”.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in De Morgen on 13 June 2014.

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Criminally reckless in Iraq

 
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By Khaled Diab

The US invasion and occupation caused Iraq to implode into anarchy and then explode into civil war. For that reason, its architects must be prosecuted.

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Monday 16 June 2014

It is a spectacular turn of events by any measure. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/S), on the back foot in Syria following offensives by Syrian rebel groups, has, since the beginning of this year, stolen back across the border into Iraq, conquering the northeast of the country one piece at a time.

Last week, ISIS’s campaign went into overdrive, with the group conquering Iraq’s second city, Mosul, and Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, which lies just 140km away from the capital, Baghdad. No long after, ISIS entered Diyala province, positioning itself less than 100km from the capital, with Nuri al-Maliki’s government launching a panicked counter-offensive.

Of symbolic significance and as a sign that the Jihadist movement is approaching its goal of establishing an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, militants reportedly bulldozed the border between the two countries.

In the wake of ISIS’s thrust, hundreds of thousands of long-suffering Iraqis have taken flight – and for good reason, in light of the videos posted by the Islamist forces which apparently show the gruesome executions of hundreds of captured Iraqi soldiers.

Most alarmingly perhaps is that ISIS, known in Arabic as al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fīl-Iraq weh al-Sham, has managed to achieve this rapid takeover of northeastern Iraq wih a ramshackle multinational militant force of just 3,000-5,000 fighters, not to mention collaborators from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army and Sunni tribal leaders.

How was this possible?

Well, if Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, is to be believed, it is down to an ideological battle between Islamists and environmentalists, of all people. “The real of war of ideas… is the one between the religious extremists (Sunni and Shiite) and the committed environmentalists,” he wrote, shortly after Mosul had been taken.

The novel notion that eco-warriors are doing battle with the self-appointed soldiers of God would be news to just about everyone in the Middle East.

It is true that the environment in the water-stressed Middle East is an ingredient of growing importance in regional conflicts, and many experts foresee water wars in the decades to come. However, it is another fluid that is at the heart of the dire situation in Iraq today: oil.

It would be easy to dismiss Friedman, once a celebrated war correspondent, as an ageing eccentric who has lost complete touch with reality, but his rantings are not harmless. As an influential, pro-invasion cheerleader – who famously told Iraqis to “suck on this” – he managed to rally public support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Today, the mainstream US media is falling into a similar trap as during the build-up to the invasion in 2003 by misdiagnosing the problem – blaming Barack Obama^s foreign policy, rather than the true villain of this piece.

What this latest episode in a long string of disasters clearly demonstrates is that the US intervention in Iraq has been a total catastrophe unseen in Mesopotamia since the Mogul sacking of Baghdad in 1258.

The wholesale destruction of the country, the disbanding of the army, and the collapse of the Baathist regime left behind such a vacuum that the country first imploded into anarchy and then exploded into a continuous cycle of civil war, creating fertile ground for radical groups to take advantage of the chaos.

The idea that America could “shock and awe” Iraq into becoming a liberal and prosperous democracy was as illusionary as the non-existent weapons of mass destruction Washington claimed Saddam Hussein possessed.

Although Iraq was an oppressive dystopia under Saddam Hussein and required radical change, such change cannot be imposed from abroad, and especially not at gunpoint by a self-interested superpower with no game-plan.

And it was recognition of the delusional nature of this criminally reckless enterprise that led tens of millions of concerned citizens around the world to pour out onto the streets to oppose the planned invasion in 2003. It also caused the worst transatlantic rift in living memory, with Washington dismissing Belgium and other European critics as the “Axis of Weasels”.

Despite this, Washington went ahead. Why?

The short answer was that the war was never about freedom or democracy – that was just a marketing ploy. It was about channeling post-9/11 American fear and anger to gain control of the world’s second-largest oil reserves and enrich certain corporations at the American taxpayer’s expense.

If you are in any doubt about this reality, consider the dull-sounding but highly significant Executive Order 13303, which basically gives American corporations carte blanche to do what they please in Iraq with impunity.

Given the far-reaching consequences of the US invasion and occupation, I believe it is important to revive the idea of bringing those responsible for it – mainly George W Bush and Tony Blair – to justices.

Although this will not help to undo the damage, it will at least bring some redress to Iraqis for the devastation the Anglo-American invasion visited on their country. It will also send a clear signal that this kind of behavior does not belong in a world seeking law, order, stability and justice.

As for what can be done about ISIS and to repair the disintegration of Iraq, I must confess I do not know. All I know is that whatever course is pursued by the outside world, military intervention must come with an international mandate and there has to be a clear vision and plan for what comes after “mission accomplished”.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first in Dutch in De Morgen on 13 June 2014.

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The curse of the Nile

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egypt is certainly the gift of the Nile, but the great river could become east Africa’s curse. What are the chances of a future ‘water war’?

14 December 2010

The Nile - ©Khaled Diab

The Nile when it arrives in Cairo. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

With the world’s attention distracted by the latest WikiLeaks revelations, Ethiopia’s prime minister Meles Zenawi did not need a whistleblower to cause his country diplomatic embarrassment: he proved more than capable of doing that all by himself.

Zenawi accused Egypt of backing anti-government rebels in his country and warned that Egypt would be defeated if it tried to invade Ethiopia. “Nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story,” he boasted, rather inaccurately. But why would Zenawi, a presumably seasoned politician who has led his country for almost two decades, make such wild allegations without supplying a shred of evidence to back them up, and why now?

Sceptics may conclude that fomenting a manufactured foreign crisis is a classic tactic to divert attention away from the questionable elections earlier this year, which helped Zenawi retain his grip on power and gave his party all but two seats in the parliament. And Zenawi, despite defeating Ethiopia’s “red terror” when he himself was a rebel leader, has largely worn out his welcome with millions of Ethiopians, particularly those living in the cities, as I witnessed first hand while travelling in the country at the time of the 2005 elections.

Zenawi’s political offensive seems to have caught Egypt unawares, with the ageing and increasingly frail-looking President Hosni Mubarak appearing miffed by Ethiopia’s posturing when asked about it by al-Jazeera last week. Nevertheless, like its counterpart in Addis Ababa, the Cairo regime could find a foreign distraction convenient, embroiled as it also is in allegations of vote-rigging and intimidation during last month’s parliamentary elections.

But are there any reasonable grounds for Zenawi’s allegations? Whether or not Egypt is actually backing rebels in Ethiopia, many Ethiopians may be inclined to believe the claim, simply because Egypt has previous form when it comes to meddling in Ethiopia’s affairs.

After Egypt conquered Sudan in the 19th-century, it launched a further campaign to invade Ethiopia, which ended in failure in 1875. In the aftermath of the second world war, Egypt made a cheeky claim for Eritrea at the Paris peace conference, which undoubtedly incensed the Ethiopians. In more recent times, Egypt and other Arab countries provided support to the Eritrean independence movement, in a kind of proxy Arab-Israeli war. However, for all his other failings, President Mubarak has taken a far more nuanced and conciliatory approach than his predecessors towards relations with Ethiopia.

But why this animosity between two countries who – beyond sporadic trading missions that stretch back to ancient times, and the religious link between the Egyptian and Ethiopian Coptic churches – have actually had limited contact and interest in each other’s affairs over the centuries?

Well, one issue above all else has been clouding the waters: the Nile. It is only fairly recently that the discovery was made that some 85% of the Nile’s waters originate in the Ethiopian highlands. Five years ago, when I sat in a boat on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, it was somewhat overwhelming to reflect that here I was many thousands of miles away, floating on Egypt’s life-support system.

Herodcreating sotus once said that Egypt was the gift of the Nile but, in a way, the river is also its modern curse. If it weren’t for the “eternal river”, which courses through the country like a life-supporting vein pumping billions of gallons of vitality into a narrow strip of lush green, Egypt, one of the driest places on earth, would be little more than a barren desert dotted by occasional oases.

Given Egypt’s almost complete dependence on water from outside its own borders, the Nile is viewed as a major “national security” issue – and one whose importance is growing. To secure its supply, Egypt signed an agreement with Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in 1929 which gave Egypt 48bn cubic metres of the Nile’s total flow of an average 88bn cubic metres. Following independence, Sudan upped its share to 18.5bn cubic metres and Egypt got 55.5bn.

When the other Nile basin countries were not in a position to make use of the river’s resources, this staggering inequality was not a major issue. However, in recent years they have pursued a drive for more equitable redistribution of the Nile’s resources through the Nile Basin Initiative.

Ethiopia understandably wishes to exploit the rains that fall on its territory to develop its agricultural sector, to stave off starvation, to generate electricity and to stimulate development. Towards that end, it has constructed a number of dams in recent years, including a mega dam.

Despite Egypt’s expressed commitment to sharing the river, the country can barely make ends meet with its current mega quota of Nile water. And, with a burgeoning population and an even drier climate thanks to global warming, Egypt will need even more water in the future. That is why it has been blocking moves to change quotas.

Frustrated at Egyptian-Sudanese obstructionism, a number of upstream countries, including Ethiopia, signed a deal in May to re-assign Nile quotas, which was roundly condemned by Egypt and Sudan. So, could this impasse eventually lead to a water war on the Nile? The idea is not far-fetched, as a number of conflicts already partly revolve around water, including Darfur and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In 1999, the UN, predicting that water would be the main cause of conflict in Africa over the following 25 years, identified the Nile basin as a major flashpoint.

Averting this looming catastrophe involves careful diplomacy, the development of appropriate alternative sources of water (including desalination) and, perhaps above all, urgent population control.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 5 December 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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Just say moo

 
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By Osama Diab

Animal rights activists are calling for global vegetarianism, but the Middle East is not ready to sacrifice its meat-eating lifestyle.

9 November 2010

As you sit down at the iftar table, you sneak a glance at the chicken, bulti and mouza (beef shank) fattah on your family’s plates. And then you load your dish up with koshari, tomato and cucumber salad, and as a special treat, meatless mahshi (stuffed vegetables).

Hard to imagine? The idea of choosing to follow a vegetarian diet isn’t new to the Western world, but in the Middle East, the notion is still novel. The American animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is trying to change that. PETA has recently become active in the region, but the organisation — which works to stop the use of animals for food, clothing, entertainment and scientific experiments — is facing an uphill battle.

However, that hasn’t stopped PETA from trying to promote vegetarianism in the region through several characteristically quirky initiatives.

In Amman in July, a Jordanian PETA activist wearing a green ankle-length gown covered in lettuce was arrested for trying to conduct what police said was an “unauthorised” one-woman demonstration; she was carrying a sign urging “Let vegetarianism grow on you” in Arabic. At least the police had a sense of humour about the incident: according a 25 July AFP report, the woman was escorted to a restaurant to change her outfit before heading to the police station.

July was a busy month for PETA. Here at home, PETA recruited two women in tight white t-shirts, black mini-skirts and red leggings to dump a large mound of red chili peppers on one of Mohandiseen’s main streets and wave placards with “Spice up your life, go vegetarian.” As Daily News Egypt reported on 18 July, the move backfired: people rushed to collect as many free peppers as they could, with two women even coming to blows over the coveted chilis, which sell for as high as LE 10 per kilogram on the local market.

“Of course, I will not stop eating meat, however expensive it may be,” restaurant owner Mohamed Hassan told the Daily News Egypt. “But now I have a whole lot of peppers, which should last me at least three days.”

Suffice it to say that the Middle East isn’t exactly fertile ground for promoting a lifestyle free of animal products.

A Western lecture
Due to a long history of Western imperialism and foreign intervention in the region, many Egyptians are sensitive to and sceptical about anything that seems to be handed down from on high by the West, especially the United States. There must be some hidden agenda behind it, the argument goes.

Manar Ammar, a local PETA volunteer and animal rights activist, disagrees that a vegetarian lifestyle is too foreign a concept to catch on here. Ammar is a vegan, meaning she does not eat any meat, eggs, dairy and any food prepared or processed with any type of animal product. In support of this philosophy, she cites Surat al-Anaam (Livestock), verse 38 from the Qur’an: “There is not an animal (that lives) on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms part of) communities like you. Nothing have We omitted from the Book, and they (all) shall be gathered to their Lord in the end.”

“Ali Ibn Abi Taleb [son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)] said ‘Do not make your stomachs become the graveyard of animals’ long before PETA ever existed,” she adds.

She argues that the notion that vegetarianism is a form of cultural imperialism is wrong. “However, the true cultural imperialism is adopting factory farming from the West and applying it here,” she says.

Even without a hidden agenda, PETA’s push for vegetarianism seems culturally clueless in countries where the charitable distribution of meat is an integral part of Islam and common social customs.

Muslims believe that after Prophet Abraham proved his obedience to God by agreeing to sacrifice his son Ismail, God stayed the prophet’s hand and sent a sheep to be sacrificed in the boy’s stead. On Eid el-Adha, every Muslim able to afford it sacrifices an animal as a symbol of Abraham’s devotion to God, and distributes the meat among family members and the poor. The nation’s poor already follow a vegetarian diet based on fuul and taamiya out of necessity, and for many this is the one time of year when they get meat.

While distributing molokheyya and mahshi might be equally appreciated, the religious symbolism of the holiday would be seriously watered down.

Distributing meat is not just a religious duty, but a sign of social status, wealth and generosity. As such, an ‘ordehi‘ (meatless) meal has a negative connotation for many of us, and is considered a gift of lesser quality. It is hard to imagine that celebrations, such as births, weddings and Ramadan iftars without meat or even our beloved Sham al-Neseem holiday without fish and eggs.

Egypt flirted briefly with vegetarianism as a public policy, but had to abandon the effort. In the 1970s, with the price of meat skyrocketing, the government attempted to promote a vegetarian diet for economic reasons. The campaign tried to convince people that plant-based food, such as protein-rich fuul, was a healthier option than our four-footed brethren.

In response, satirical poet Ahmed Fouad Negm wrote one of his most famous poems, Il Fuul wil Lahma (The beans and the meat), with tongue-in-cheek verses announcing that the writer would rather die eating meat than live eating beans.

It’s a sentiment many of us seem to share. “I can’t imagine Egyptians giving up meat,” says Abdulrahman Sherif, a businessman. “Rich Egyptians just can’t live without meat, while poor Egyptians can’t live without at least looking forward to it.”

Saving the world with veggies

Activists like Ammar are hopeful that this climate can change if people understand the economic, health and environmental repercussions of eating meat.

“Poor people will not be giving up meat for animals rights but rather for human rights, for their own right to be fed all year round instead of one day each year,” the PETA volunteer says. She claims that to produce one kilo of meat, 16 kilos of feed are required. “Now imagine if all that land is used to grow vegetables, grains and fruits instead of feed, every one will be fed.”

While reallocating resources away from meat production may yield more food, it ignores the fact that there is already enough food to begin with. On the Frequently Asked Questions webpage, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) notes there is “enough food in the world today for everyone to have the nourishment necessary for a healthy and productive life”. According to the WFP, “the key causes of hunger are natural disasters, conflict, poverty, poor agricultural infrastructure and over-exploitation of the environment,” along with recent financial hardship that have hit families in recent years.

Ammar believes that Islam glorifies humbleness, compassion and looking after one’s health more than it promotes meat. “The Prophet (PBUH) was a semi vegetarian according to many trusted sources. He ate meat rarely and even washed up after eating camel meat. Islam calls for sustainable ways of living in harmony with the planet and its creatures. Throughout the Qur’an, the miracle of creation and animal diversity is very obvious and repeated.”

While vegetarianism (at least by choice) is currently practised by a handful of the nation’s educated elite who might perceive it as the cool thing to do, Ammar is confident that when people are educated about the lifestyle, they will adopt it as a way of healthier living that can save the environment and spread compassion.

It is possible that people will adopt a more healthy and environmentally friendly life when they are educated about it. But there are many other things this nation needs to learn first, such as skills to support themselves and their families. One-third of the country’s population is illiterate and almost half live on less than two dollars a day. Many unprivileged Egyptians struggle to put food on the table – any food, and they have more pressing issues than to watch what they eat.

That said, the way in which meat is produced remains a significant problem and one that should be addressed. A 2006 United Nations study titled Livestock’s long shadow — environmental issues and options states that “[Animal agriculture] should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale.”

Air pollution, water shortages, climate change and land degradation are all issues of critical concerns to us as a nation, and they have more complex causes than just simply global meat production. Some sort of action is certainly needed, but convincing people one by one to give up meat may not be the quickest or most effective way to solve these problems.

Vegetarians are confident that what they’re preaching will certainly lead to results. Given the cultural climate and PETA’s oddball attempts thus far to change hearts and minds, however, don’t hold your breath. In the meantime, pass the shawerma.
This article first appeared in the September 2010 issue of Egypt Today. Republished here with the author’s consent. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved

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When the skies fell silent

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Silent nights, genuinely clear blue skies and the sense that nature is finally fighting back… Am I the only one who enjoyed Iceland’s volcanic eruptions of late?

28 April 2010

Humanity’s obsession is to create order in a world that is essentially chaotic. Earthquakes, tidal waves and now volcanic eruptions are, and have always been, just round the corner. And yet, the master species – as I’m sure we’d like to be recognised – thinks it can create laws, charters and ideas to govern what is essentially ungovernable… nature.

Attempts to mitigate such disasters are always well intended but usually turn out to be pretty pointless. People still die, planes get grounded, businesses go broke, and politicians and leaders make ever-more grand statements on how it will be prevented next time. If it weren’t so tragic it would definitely be comical.

Especially when you think that seemingly our most successful effort to have a real, discernible impact on the planet so far has been to bugger it up with greenhouse gases causing what most people now believe to be man-made climate change.

And this is where Iceland’s volcanic plumes come in, adding a somewhat ironic twist to this ill-feted human desire to control everything, to shape everything in our own image, if you will. The days the planes were silent left Europe’s skies clearer than I can recall in 20 years, free of the lattice of contrails (those puffy trails that follow an aircraft) that disperse and create a haze that blights the sky.

What’s more, the early morning and night flights that have become a part of my usual sleep-deprived existence, living not far from Belgium’s busiest airport, also fell blissfully silent. Again, I’m looking for the downside to this eruption.

Sure, it left people all over the world stuck wondering if they would ever see their loved ones again – the last time the vocano Eyjafjallajökull fired up in 1821 it apparently lasted over a year. It even affected a colleague who was covering a conference I should have attended in Valencia on the Thursday and Friday when it first erupted. He e-mailed me with the subject line “stuck in Valencia”.

My first thought was that my Manchester-based colleague could do worse than being stuck in sunny Spain for the weekend, but when the story started to develop it really did look like he could be there for untold days… and on my payroll!

Anyway, long-story-short, he jumped a bus on Friday night to Lyon, a TGV to Paris, the Eurostar to London, a train to Derby and his wife drove down and picked him up in the early hours of Sunday morning. I’ve since learned that, compared to tens of thousands of stranded travellers, he (and as it happens my budget) got off quite lightly.

So despite this little personal hick-up, I have to say I’ve enjoyed the volcanic fallout. Alas, as I write this just days after the all-clear was given, plane after plane thunders overhead as arilines desperately try to clear the backlog of airmail, perishable tropical fruit and passengers.

Still, I wonder if this little taste of ‘quiet Earth’ might leave a fallout of another kind: we’ve now seen that perhaps we can do without long weekends in Egypt, business confabs in California and New Zealand lamb.

Yes, the skies were silent but I could hear the faintest sound of a wind change.

Published with the author’s permission. © Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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Trashy fascism

 
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By Christian Nielsen

I spend so much time sorting my rubbish that I’m thinking of putting it on my CV as a skill or taking it up as a profession.

1 April 2010

I’m serious about this. The yearly calendar issued by the local council in the Belgian town where I live is colour-coded to help hapless citizens know which sort of rubbish goes out each week – recyclables, organic and garden waste, ‘big rubbish’, clothes, cartons, Christmas trees… Apparently, it all gets ferried off to a giant sorting centre and eventually repurposed into children’s playgrounds, or something more useful than ground fill and high-temperature incineration.

[I’m not going to get into the rumours that it actually just gets piled up somewhere hidden and eventually incinerated or shipped to Africa. That would be too cynical.]

All I know is if you get this recycling and sorting business wrong, there will be consequences. You come home from work to find your blue recycling bag has been left in front of your house for all to see what a ‘recycling twit’ you are – a large red sticker with some sort of insignia, maybe a middle finger, leaving no doubt you have been punished. You drag the thing back through the house again, dripping a trail of sour yoghurt, and sift through the contents to see what offensive material you have dared to try to throw out – sorry, I mean save the planet with.

So now, I wash out milk cartons before putting them in the blue bag, hold up washing liquid containers to the pictograph guides to see if they’re ‘acceptable rubbish’, consult the website when new yoghurt packages come on the market to see if they’re to be included.

As I pass the environmental ‘black houses’, those who bear the shame of ‘fout’ sticker on their garbage, I feel something akin to self-righteous anger. I now put in the time, do the homework and the sorting groundwork during the week, so why can’t they do it?

And this is how it starts. Maybe I’ll join a citizen’s movement and we‘ll mete out some rough justice, a scalable set of punishments for anti-green garbage behaviour. Or I’ll start a vigilante group scouting the nearby forest for illegal rubbish dumpers, the ones who don’t want to pay the whopping sum for ‘general rubbish’ bags – containing everything you’re too lazy to sort. This is the government’s very own punitive measure to make sure citizens use the recycling bags or facilities, which are naturally cheaper.

In this scenario, the garbage Gestapo put dumpers on the lowest wrung of the social ladder. They would be made to wear the red fout stickers as an arm band. Repeat offences could even lead to banishment, some sort of Gitmo for environmental antisocialists. The climate change sceptics could also go there, along with smokers, frequent flyers, and people who have too many children, drive big cars and have dogs and cats (apparently they have a big CO2 footprint, what with all that meaty food, pampering and shit) – not necessarily in that order.

I’d love to go on and create a whole fantastic new ‘garbage’ world order, but it’s Wednesday night – rubbish night, as it happens – so I don’t have any time to waste. I wouldn’t want to get it wrong this week.

Published with the author’s permission. © Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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Climate change in Camelot

 
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By Robert Adler

In South Dakota, everyone knows that the climate is just right – and that global warming is just the hot air of science.

Monday 15 March 2010

“It’s true! It’s true! The crown has made it clear.

The climate must be perfect all the year.

A law was made a distant moon ago here:

July and August cannot be too hot.

And there’s a legal limit to the snow here

In Camelot.”

- Camelot, by Alan Jay Lerner & Frederic Loewe

 The legislature of the State of South Dakota distinguished itself by passing an anti-climate change resolution – House Concurrent Resolution No. 1009 – in February.

 No, the legislature did not follow King Arthur’s lead by attempting to stabilise the state’s climate by decree. Instead, it called for “the balanced teaching of global warming” in South Dakota’s public schools, borrowing the language and tactics of the ongoing campaign to force the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in America’s schools.

On a 36 to 20 vote, South Dakota’s House of Representatives urged the state’s schools to teach that global warming is a theory rather than a proven fact. Teachers are to impress on students that the significance and “interrelativity” of the “variety of climatological, meteorological, astrological [sic], thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics” that determine global weather patterns are “largely speculative”, and that the scientific investigation of global warming has been “complicated and prejudiced” by “political and philosophical viewpoints.”

The resolution concludes with a seemingly innocent statement urging that “all instruction on the theory of global warming be appropriate to the age and academic development of the student and to the prevailing classroom circumstances”.

The phrase I’ve italicised is a coded way of warning teachers not to present climate change in a way that might anger students or parents who believe that climate change is a hoax hatched by the UN to frighten ordinary citizens, justify draconian laws and enrich greedy scientists. It’s similar to language advocated by the right-wing group Students for Academic Freedom in its ‘Academic Bill of Rights’, which has been used to attack and even sue college professors whose teaching goes against the beliefs of conservative students.

 It’s all too easy to trivialise the South Dakota House Resolution and poke holes in the facts and reasoning advanced to support it. The resolution’s use of “astrological” instead of “astronomical”, the flawed list of anti-climate-change evidence it presents – that the earth has been cooling for the last eight years, that there is no evidence of warming in the troposphere, that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant but “the gas of life” – and the argument that the existence of naturally driven climate change in the past rules out human-caused climate change today, makes for a document that’s hard to take seriously.

 Even South Dakota’s senate seems to agree. They stripped out the most embarrassing verbiage before passing their own version of the resolution on 24 February.

 I suppose that, from a European perspective, the whole issue may seem quaint and laughable – just another example of America’s amusing lack of sophistication.

 Unfortunately, the resolution has to be taken seriously. It stands as the latest – but by no means the last – skirmish in a long and continuing battle for the minds, as well as the hearts, of America’s children. As reported by New Scientist, the Texas school board – whose annual purchase of some 48 million textbooks allows it to determine what most of the nation’s children study – voted last March to require textbooks to question the existence of global warming, and, in an astonishing kowtow to “young-earth creationists”, deleted the 14-billion-year age of the universe from the science curriculum.

 It’s not just climate change, evolution, or the age of the earth which are in the crosshairs in this battle, but science as a whole. The religious-conservative movement that helps elect creationist school board members across the country, state legislators like Resolution 1009’s author, Don Kopp, the 110 members of the United States Congress who win perfect ratings from ultraconservative groups, or Senator James Inhofe who now wants to file criminal charges against US and British climate scientists, has a far more ambitious agenda – nothing less than to replace the pluralistic secular humanism that most people think has defined the United States since its inception with religious fundamentalism.

 The movement dates at least to the 1980s, when the Rev. Pat Robertson founded the Christian Coalition with the stated goal of advancing a Christian agenda nationwide through grassroots activism. This still-growing movement has made it clear that it is determined to redefine America in the light of the “truth” that the nation was founded not on the basis of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but on fundamentalist Christian beliefs. They see the Bible as true and the Constitutional wall separating church and state as a dangerous myth. Be it evolution, global climate change, or embryonic stem cell research, when science gets in the way, it will be attacked.

 As reported in the New York Times, attacking climate change along with evolution may be a way to get around court rulings that so far have found that singling out evolution for so-called balanced presentation in textbooks and classes is clearly religiously motivated and violates the separation of church and state. By also targeting global warming, the age of the universe, or the origin of life, anti-evolutionists can claim that they are merely advocating academic freedom and fair play.

 And I suppose it doesn’t hurt that the same politicians who depend on the votes of true believers also depend on campaign contributions by corporations that are strongly motivated to keep pumping crude oil, mining coal, and pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

 At least in the United States, this is not a challenge to which scientists and those who recognise that science can only thrive in an environment that values facts and reason over Bible-based belief and God-given truth can remain indifferent or uninvolved. A war has been declared, and scientists and their supporters can no more wish it away than South Dakota’s legislators can resolve away global climate change.

Published with the author’s permission. ©Robert Adler. All rights reserved.

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Green motoring in bloom

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Lean, green commuting machines will be the new black for Belgian fleet car managers this year.

29 January 2010

“Go, greased lightning, you’re burning up the quarter mile. Greased lightning, go greased lightning […] You are supreme, uh ah, the chicks’ll cream, uh ah, for greased lightning.”

It’s hard to forget this iconic song from the movie Grease. For a few too many of us, this era of gas-guzzling sports cars still resonates. But with an environmental crisis looming and an economic one still in play, the fast and flash cars that used to turn heads in admiration could soon turn them downward in shame.

Every day, a growing number of the 5 million cars in Belgium crawls into Brussels – most of them still running on fossil fuels. It’s a daily ritual repeated in cities across the European Union – so it’s no surprise that around 12% of EU carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions can be traced back to cars.

The world’s leaders are not blind to this environmental failure. They responded more than a decade ago with the Kyoto Protocol to pressure nations into cutting greenhouse gas emissions, largely blamed for global warming and climate change problems. A raft of national and EU regulations targeting industrial and transport-related pollution then followed.

Despite the lacklustre outcome at the Copenhagen Summit (COP15) in December, the trend towards greener life decisions will continue to gather momentum. More fuel-efficient petrol cars will gradually yield to hybrid electric-petrol cars which will probably be overtaken by next-generation electric cars once the scientists perfect the battery technology and better infrastructure is in place for recharging.

Change you can feel

Belgium is also joining the green car chorus with surprising gusto. For instance, if you drive a low CO2 emitting car, the banking and insurance group Ethias will give you a 10% reduction on the premium. And the Belgian government will pat you on the back as well. As from 1 January this year, it is offering tax concession on personal use of company cars which emit less carbon dioxide (see box).

“We are in favour of modifying the existing fiscal system for business car use,” says Danny Smagghe, spokesperson for Belgium’s automobile club Touring, “providing it doesn’t cost drivers more!”

Touring makes no distinction between hybrids and ordinary vehicles in its service offering, Smagghe says. Its breakdown crews are already well-trained to deal with what he calls “cars of the future”.

Positive signs of change all round, then? Well, not exactly.

It’s a fair bet that diesel fans and petrol-heads would rather have an amputation than be seen driving an electric car, which to them has more in common with a sewing machine than a racing machine. But the way the GPS is heading, these diehards are going to be driven off the road by a combination of spiralling costs and onerous regulation.

So, could hybrids offer a gentle introduction to greener motoring for these holdouts? Hybrids could cruise the highways using their combustion engine and buzz along the byways on electric power.

Prius and proud

It also helps that the hybrid technology is now proven and well-respected. Toyota’s Prius is the hybrid market leader worldwide, but Honda’s Insight will quickly gain ground. European and US carmakers are having to play catch-up, as another Japanese manufacturer Nissan is preparing its 2010 European launch of the zero-emission, fully electric Leaf. Unlike its electric forefathers, the Leaf has power and stamina enough for commuting and longer excursions.

Hybrid owners show consistent loyalty to the technology. Nearly one in three Prius owners buys another one, according to US analysts R.L. Polk & Company. On average, one in five hybrid owners buys the same model again.

Hybrids buck other trends, too. Forecasts by Polk before the economic meltdown of 2008-2009 indicated continued growth in hybrid sales – clearly helped by higher fuel costs and environmental pressures around the world. Western Europe, the study suggests, will see significant sales growth, from less than 1% market share in 2008 up to 5% in 2012.

“You have a lot more environmental and political discussions throughout the EU and a much higher sensitivity [about] CO2 emissions,” notes Lonnie Miller, director of automotive studies at Polk, in an interview on HybridCars.com.

Petrol today, electric tomorrow… where to from there?

In response to demand and with some coaxing by EU laws, carmakers are building more efficient, lower emission vehicles. European motorists are also improving as awareness grows about such things as car-pooling and the links between driving habits and higher emissions.

Meanwhile, scientists are continuing to dream up new fuels, novel energy sources and more efficient engines, in many cases with the help of generous national and EU research funding.

But what happens if these innovations have their own unwanted side-effects?

Battery-powered cars seem like the dream-driving scenario today but soon enough we may discover producing electricity to keep all these vehicles charged could be worse for the environment. Just as questions are being asked today why we are diverting land and water away from food crops to produce ethanol.

(That so many of the world’s population is undernourished and huge tracts of carbon-absorbing rain forest are being cleared to grow such biofuel crops appears to be a secondary matter.)

Where is the logic in all this?

These are pretty big questions and this is a pretty small story about trends in green motoring. All we know for sure is that “grease lightening” is dying, if not dead – and in their love affair with the oil producers, the world’s major carmakers have ignored this truth at their peril.

However, under pressure to remain competitive and to stanch the bankruptcies, the carmakers’ new business mantra will surely be “change we finally believe in”. The sort of change that will drive investment in cleaner fuel sources like hydrogen, new engine designs, and perhaps a whole new way of thinking about the transport mix.

There’s no green bullet to fix the environment and keep economies ticking over at the same time. The reality in Belgium and other densely populated European countries will remain one of traffic jams, noise and plumes of fumes spewing from exhaust pipes for some time to come.

But as the Australian folk singer Paul Kelly once wrote, “from little things big things grow”.

Greening up the commute

The Belgian government has changed the way it calculates tax on company vehicle use away from engine size in favour of cars with lower CO2 emissions.

The new coefficient is based on:

  • 0 .00210 euro per gram of CO2 for petrol, LPG and natural gas-fuelled cars
  • 0.00230 euro per gram of CO2 for diesel cars

So, the tax on a diesel car with CO2 emissions of 129grams/km travelling 20km to work each day would come to 1,484 euros per year (129 x 0.00230 x 5000).

The incentive: the more fuel efficient the vehicle, the greater the tax benefit.

EcoTest your next car

The good news is cars in Europe are getting cleaner, according to EcoTest‘s latest results. Over half of the 900 vehicles tested[1] scored 4 out of 5 stars for low emissions and pollutant levels, up from only 14 percent six years ago. But there is still room for improvement as only three models – the VW Passat TSI 1.4 Ecofuel, Toyota 1.8 Hybrid and Honda Insight – have so far earned a 5-star rating. EcoTest warns consumers not to be duped by branding – having “eco” in the model name does not always mean it’s environmentally friendly!


[1] by German Automobile Club (ADAC) and the International Auto Federation (FIA)

This article first appeared in (A)way magazine. Republished here with the author’s permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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The wealth of nations revisited

 
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By Robert Adler

Natural wealth is so undervalued that countries believe they are getting richer when, in fact, they are poorer. Can economists see green beyond the greenback?

29 January 2010

If you want to know the current value of the FTSE, the CAC 40 or the Euronext 100, you can find out in seconds. If you want to chart the gross domestic product (GDP) of the UK, France, or the EU over time, a few keystrokes will get you the numbers you need.

But what if you want to know the value of the UK or the EU or the world’s natural resources – non-trivial items, such as forests, watersheds, fisheries, soils, pastures, wetlands and ecosystem services? Not only can’t you find a value, nobody can, because nobody is counting.

The last serious stabs at valuing global ecosystem services were made more than a decade ago. Economist Robert Costanza and his colleagues gathered together all the studies they could find and estimated that the minimum value of the world’s ecosystem services fell somewhere between $16 and $ 54 trillion, most of which remained “outside the market”—in other words, most economic and development decisions were made without taking into account whether they would add to or detract from these vital natural systems (Nature, 387, 253-260, 15 May 1997).

A more inclusive, model-based attempt estimated the total global value of ecosystem services in 2000 at $185 trillion—4.5 times the gross world product that year (Ecological Economics, 41, 529-560, 2002). So the largest estimate is more than 11 times the smallest. It makes a significant difference if a hectare of undisturbed wetland or forest is worth $1,100,000 or $100,000, or more likely still, not valued at all.

At a time when economists track every measure of global, national, and local economies as avidly as the vital signs of a patient in intensive care, it seems a bit strange that something as crucial to the wealth and health of nations as the natural resources and systems on which they rely remain nearly as uncharted as the terra incognita of medieval maps.

Cambridge University professor Partha Dasgupta is one of a handful of economists who see this blank space in economic models as not just strange but, as he puts it, “a gaping hole in how nature is embedded into economics”.

He points out that as long as natural resources and ecosystem services are not measured and valued, they can’t be incorporated into economic models and will be ignored in economic decision-making.

Dasgupta and a few of his colleagues are striving to flesh out adequate measures of what he calls natural capital and get them incorporated into mainstream economics.

Economics has been phenomenally successful in shaping the way decision-makers at all levels think about and evaluate progress, Dasgupta says. In particular, GDP has become the canonical measure of development and the wealth of nations, and guides the economic choices and policies of every country.

The problem with GDP, says Dasgupta, is that it’s both inadequate and misleading.

It’s inadequate in that, although it is used to measure the wealth of nations, it leaves out a vital part of that wealth – natural capital. It’s misleading because nations relying on GDP to measure progress can easily find themselves looking richer on paper, while in fact they are becoming poorer by degrading their natural resources. While conservationists have been warning of this for years, Dasgupta is one of the first economists to have the data to prove it.

In a recent article in Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B (doi: 10.1098/rstb.2009.0231), Dasgupta traces the development of five countries – Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and China – from 1970 through 2000. All five show seemingly healthy growth as measured by GDP, per-capita GDP, and even HDI (Human Development Index, a composite measure of GDP per person, life expectancy, and education).

The catch is that when Dasgupta includes even a partial evaluation of the wealth lost through depleted natural resources and degraded ecosystem services, the balance sheets of four of those five countries shift into the red. Even as their GDPs and HDIs told these nations that they were getting richer, they were actually getting poorer; their development was unsustainable.

Research in this area has been surprisingly sparse, but consistent in showing that even valuing a small subset of their natural resources reveals that many nations are buying GDP growth at the expense of real wealth. “If I had all the numbers,” Dasgupta says, “it would be even worse.”

Although Dasgupta says that some of his colleagues continue to view nature as if it were an infinite source of resources and an equally infinite sink for waste products, most now accept that, in principal, it’s important to value natural capital. And most economists, he says, now grasp something he proved mathematically a decade ago, that it’s possible to develop a measure of comprehensive wealth that would incorporate nature and reflect human well being better than the GDP or the HDI.

This represents progress, but it seems painfully slow as forests continue to be razed, fisheries depleted, and carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere at a record pace. The first substantial study of changes in comprehensive wealth was carried out just 11 years ago, and far too few researchers have followed suit since then. In the meantime, thousands of economists worldwide continue to crank out GDP-based studies, which in turn continue to guide and justify the current pattern of economic decision-making and development.

One ray of hope, says Dasgupta, is that the World Bank and UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme, are just now starting a project that will produce a world wealth report every two years. Initially, this report will include just a few of the better-measured aspects of natural capital such as fisheries, but it will add other natural resources and ecosystem services over time. “This is the first systematic attempt to value natural capital for the whole world,” says Dasgupta, “It has never been done before.”

If all goes well, in a few years we may be able to punch a few keys and retrieve at least some realistic measures of the value of our natural resources and ecosystems. More importantly, decision-makers will have actual data to know if their nation – or the world as a whole – is developing sustainably or urgently needs to change course.

If Dasgupta and his colleagues are right, it’s a vital step that’s being taken not a moment too soon.

Published with the author’s permission. ©Robert Adler. All rights reserved.

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Green shoots in the desert

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Arab world no longer dismisses environmentalism as a western luxury and is gradually awakening to the massive environmental challenges.

9 October 2009

The Arab world is gradually awakening to the massive environmental challenges ahead for the region.

The environmental movement has long been regarded with suspicion in the developing world. For two centuries, the west has had a more or less free hand to pollute with impunity, deplete the planet of natural resources, exterminate most of its stock of wildlife that might pose any kind of threat to human safety and wipe out biodiversity not only in its own backyard but also across the planet.

Given this trail of destruction and distrust, it is perhaps unsurprising that well-meaning and far-sighted eco-warriors out to protect cuddly killer cats, hug trees against the deforester’s axe and fume over emissions have often been viewed as little more than latter-day missionaries sent out to subdue the restive natives and keep them from aspiring to better things.

This unfortunate perception was partly a coincidence of history. Although environmental campaigners in Europe and north America are as old as the industrial revolution, widespread social awareness of environmental degradation did not emerge until after World War II, with the industrialised level of destruction wrought by that conflict and the fearful potential consequences of the nuclear age.

At about the same time, the newly independent former colonies embarked on a postcolonial drive for rapid industrialisation and the desire and ambition to match and perhaps better western standards of living. Despite the emergence of cleaner and greener technologies, this was largely done with little regard for the environmental impact of modernisation, partly because developing countries could not afford the new technologies.

In recent years, many developing countries, faced with massive environmental degradation and poor air and water quality, have reached a similar stage in their industrialisation cycle as Europe and the west were at in the 1950s and 1960s, with the environmental movement gradually becoming more than a fringe concern. This, coupled with the impacts already being felt by climate change and the massive upheavals ahead, means they are slowly awakening to the reality that development and the environment are not two separate entities.

In the Arab world, although direct industrialisation has slowed down over the past three decades, modernisation has not – stressing the environment enormously. The region may be the world’s main petrol pump, but this finite resource is rapidly dwindling and dependence on it has affected air quality in large urban centres and on the coastal plains where half of the region’s population lives. Major investment in harnessing the region’s massive solar resources makes both economic and environmental sense.

In addition, although climate change largely carries a ‘made in the West’ label, the region is set quite literally to take the heat for it. Both temperatures and populations are expected to rise over the coming decades, causing water reserves to diminish, or at best stagnate, and desertification to accelerate. This means that scarce water will become even scarcer. Rising sea levels could also threaten major coastal population centres.

Faced with all these emerging challenges, it is unsurprising that the latest Arab Human Development Report dedicated an entire chapter to the environment and natural resources.

As in many other areas, Arab leaders do not always set a good example. Take King Muhammed VI of Morocco, whose enthusiasm for cars prompted him to take the outrageous step of chartering a Hercules transporter plane to fly his Aston Martin from Rabat to Britain for repairs. Before we laugh off those eccentric and peculiar Arab leaders, it is worth recalling that the US president – who travels abroad with two planes and an entire fleet of cars – has a carbon footprint estimated to be the equivalent of 2,200 energy-guzzling US households.

A group of independent experts has produced a report dedicated to the region’s environment. The Arab Environment Future Challenges Report estimates that environmental degradation costs the region about 5% of its GDP.

The document also identified Abu Dhabi as a trailblazer in environmental action, commending its environment strategy for 2009 to 2013 as a “model” for other countries to emulate. Environmental action in the small emirate is also reaching the grassroots and the new generation. For instance, 50 Abu Dhabi schools are in the process of “going green” and reducing their ecological footprint.

A few weeks before the Copenhagen climate conference, Beirut will play host to the 2009 conference of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development where a new report will be released and experts will debate what action needs to be taken. As occurred at Kyoto and may well happen in Copenhagen, it remains to be seen whether greater awareness of our heavy-footed environmental bootprint will translate into effective and sustained action.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 28 September 2009. Read the related discussion.

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