Kingdom Tower, Riyadh, by Broadarrow, Wikimedia, some right reserved
Speaking to me after the December 2015 United Nations Paris Agreement on climate change, Professor Kevin Anderson, the Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, noted the world is still on course for 3-4°C warming on pre-industrial levels (“and probably the upper end of that”).
In 2012 the World Bank summarised what this will look like in its suitably titled report Turn Down The Heat: Why A 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided. “The 4°C scenarios are devastating”, the foreword explained. “The inundation of coastal cities, increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates, many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter, unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics, substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions, increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones, and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.” Professor Anderson believes a 4°C world will likely be “incompatible with an organized global community”, while Naomi Klein, the author of the seminal book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, states that “climate change is an existential crisis for the human species”.
All this is frightening enough but here is the real kicker: according to the scientific consensus 75 percent of known fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground if we are to have any chance of stopping dangerous levels of climate change.
Which brings us to the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), who control around 30 percent of the world’s crude oil reserves and over 20 percent of the world’s gas reserves, and in particular Saudi Arabia, which holds around 16 percent of the planet’s oil reserves.
According to numerous NGOs and newspaper reports, Saudi Arabia, along with the Arab Group of countries it unofficially leads, worked to sabotage a robust deal in Paris, attempting to water down temperature limits and remove mention of human rights from parts of the agreement.
Naming Saudi Arabia “Fossil of the Day”, the Climate Action Network noted “ “the Saudi’s are trying to torpedo three years of hard science, commissioned by governments, that clearly shows 2 degrees warming is too much for vulnerable communities around the world.” Sven Harmeling, CARE International’s climate change advocacy coordinator, was equally critical: “Saudi Arabia is blocking these very substantive discussions going forward and [from] allowing ministers to understand what’s going forward.” The Guardian reported that Washington lobbyists representing Saudi Arabia and Kuwait worked to slow down and muddy the negotiation process, attempting to link climate aid for small island nations that could disappear completely under rising seas to compensation packages for oil producers facing declining revenues.
A similar dynamic was in evidence at the UN climate talks in Bonn in September 2015. “There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia’s position is harmful”, noted Jens Mattias from Greenpeace. “We need strong long-term goals and an agreement to phase out fossil fuels – Saudi Arabia is fighting against this tooth-and-nail. And they have a lot of influence, especially on other oil-producing countries."
From a narrow short-term perspective there are, of course, many self-interested reasons why Saudi Arabia and other GCC nations would want to block meaningful action on climate change. The vast majority of their revenues comes from oil and gas, and while ‘economic diversification’ is endlessly debated throughout the GCC, there is little prospect of weaning their economies off the black gold anytime soon.
“Oil revenues allow the rulers of countries like Saudi Arabia to pay out generously on welfare and subsidies, which underscores their mandate to rule, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring”, notes German newspaper Deutsche Welle. Dr Jim Krane, a researcher on energy and the GCC at Rice University's Baker Institute, makes plain just how high the stakes are for GCC rulers: "Telling Saudi Arabia it has to leave its oil in ground is tantamount to saying we support a revolution in your country”.
So, to summarize, the GCC’s rulers need to keep extracting fossil fuels to ensure their own survival, just as the planet and humanity requires the GCC and other governments to stop extracting fossil fuels for their own survival. It is this irreconcilable clash of interests that led journalist Pari Trivedi to report from the Paris climate talks that Saudi Arabia “has been negotiating in a manner that refutes any consideration for the wellbeing of humankind”.
The Gulf itself will be hit particularly hard by a rise in global temperatures, leading to significantly hotter and dryer conditions in the region, with increasing freshwater shortages contributing to security threats and enlarged refugee flows. Yemen’s water problems are well understood. Less well known is the link between climate change-related drought and the conflict in Syria. Reviewing a study in the journal Nature Climate Change, The Guardian explains the GCC “will suffer heatwaves beyond the limit of human survival if climate change is unchecked”. Kicking in after 2070, the research shows 45°C would become the normal summer maximum in Gulf cities, with 60°C seen in places like Kuwait during some years.
As the author Robert Tressell wrote in his classic book The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, “Every man who is not helping to bring about a better state of affairs for the future is helping to perpetuate the present misery and is therefore the enemy of his own children. There is no such thing as being neutral: we must either help or hinder.”
We in the West should not duck our own culpability. Ever since the late 1980s when the world began to understand the dangers of climate change, the West has been intimately involved in this dangerous ecological poker game. First, it is the affluent, industrialised societies that require significant amounts of the world’s fossil fuels to maintain our unsustainable consumer-based lifestyles. And second, the West – through military intervention, arms deals, diplomatic support and trade – plays a crucial role in protecting and maintaining the Gulf monarchies in power.
Deutsche Welle notes that many believe oil’s “greatest value” to Saudi Arabia “is as a strategic weapon”, allowing it to play an oversized role in the international arena. And this is where the politics of climate change should be of great interest to anyone concerned about the West’s support for the most fundamentalist government on earth. For example, a significant shift to renewables in the UK would dramatically reduce the nation’s reliance on oil coming from the Middle East and the Gulf, which would, in turn, dramatically reduce the power of Saudi Arabia to influence the UK’s foreign and domestic politics. Just imagine: no more flags flying at half-mast; no more Serious Fraud Office investigations prematurely closed down; no more dodgy arms sales; no more enabling of the on-going humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Climate change, the strength of the environmental movement in the West, the arms trade, the UK’s energy make-up, political change in Saudi Arabia, Western foreign policy – everything is connected. And it is no exaggeration to say the very future of humanity depends on how quickly the populations and leaders in the West and the GCC come to understand these links and the threat to their own and the planet’s well-being – and how quickly they act.