BANGKOK // Awareness about climate change and the threat it poses is woefully lacking in Arab countries, Arab delegates and activists attending key climate talks in Bangkok told The National. The absence of debate about climate change in the Middle East suggested the Arab world was "living on another planet", said Wael Hmaidan, the executive director of IndyACT, a Lebanon-based non-governmental organisation.
But Mootaz Khalil, the head of the Egyptian delegation to a UN-sponsored climate change forum, which took place over the past fortnight and ended yesterday, said Arab governments were taking the issue seriously, even if their peoples did not "comprehend what is at stake". Egypt faces among the greatest perils in the Arab world from rising global temperatures, with rising sea levels threatening to inundate the fertile Nile Delta, home to almost two-thirds of Egypt's population.
"There is awareness, but not everybody comprehends what's at stake here. Everybody knows there's a threat but many don't know how urgent it is," said Mr Khalil. The country had formed a committee on climate change and has ambitious renewable energy targets, aiming to obtain 20 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. "We are taking climate change very seriously, and we believe that other Arab countries are taking it seriously as well," Mr Khalil said. "We have a common position with our fellow Arab countries on many points. There is good communication between us on this."
However, Mr Hmaidan said Arab populations were too preoccupied with issues such as the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, bloodshed in Iraq and fraught internal politics to pay much attention to climate change. "In terms of our awareness, we are very far away," he said. "In the Arab world, I am astonished if I hear a politician mention it. This reflects how much the environment, and climate change specifically, is not an issue. It feels as though the Arab world is on another planet. All the world is talking about climate change except the Arabs."
Focusing domestic attention on an issue that is already affecting Arab countries might require a climate change catastrophe, Mr Hmaidan said. In Syria, for example, hundreds of thousands of people had moved to cities from farming areas in the country's arid north-east after two years of severe drought caused by a combination of climate change, man-made desertification and lack of irrigation, according to the UN.
"Sadly, I think that the disasters that are going to come will bring the awareness, a kind of Pearl Harbor incident of climate change," Mr Hmaidan said. Delegates at the Bangkok talks, which took place under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, were supposed to pave the way for a groundbreaking deal in the Danish capital Copenhagen in December: developed countries would agree to slash their greenhouse gas emissions and provide billions of dollars to help developing countries adapt to the adverse effects of climate change that are already affecting them.
But the negotiations sputtered; developed countries would not commit to big reductions in carbon emissions or offer large-scale financing for poorer nations. Observers at the talks criticised Saudi Arabia's role in the negotiations, accusing the world's biggest oil producer of working to obstruct a far-reaching deal because of its own concerns for its petrocarbon-based economy. The Saudi delegation did not respond to requests for a comment.
But Mr Khalil defended the kingdom's role in the talks. "Saudi's position reflects their national interest, which is legitimate in our view," he said. On the sidelines, the UAE and Qatar were praised by NGOs for their efforts in diversifying their economies and investing in renewable energy. The world's first carbon-neutral city, Masdar, is under construction in Abu Dhabi, and in June Masdar was chosen to be the site of the new headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena).
"Masdar and Irena, these are big things," said Kim Carstensen, the leader of the World Wildlife Fund's Global Climate Initiative. "There's a sense that they want to diversify the economy and benefit from what climate change entails." The Emirati delegation did not respond to a request for an interview. A source close to the delegation said, however, that the UAE was maintaining a low profile at the talks.
The source added that Japan's announced emissions reduction target of 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 would have implications for the UAE economy, given that Japan is the biggest purchaser of Emirati oil. "This could have a big impact in the long term, and we will need to carry out studies to see what will happen and what we can do about it," the source said. Qatar, meanwhile, stands to benefit from moves to cleaner energy because it is the world's biggest producer of natural gas, a cleaner energy source than oil. This should help to mitigate the unenviable fact that the peninsula nation is the world's number one per capita emitter of carbon dioxide, Qatari delegation member Ali al Mualla said.
"We believe that Qatar, since it is producing natural gas, should be compensated for producing cleaner energy for other countries. We would like compensation-based accounting for our own emissions," Mr al Mualla said. Negotiators will reconvene for another week of talks in Barcelona in early November before the crucial meeting in Copenhagen in December. Email:email@example.com