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Climate change: the elephant in the room

File - Boys play at the shore in Sidon, Friday, March 15, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)

In Lebanon this summer, there has been an array of topics dominating the headlines: ongoing domestic divisions, political soap operas that put the screenwriters of House of Cards to shame, constant regional strife, ongoing bloodbaths in Syria, Iraq and Gaza, wrenching refugee images and so on and so on. But there is an elephant in the room, ignored, towering above all else: climate change. 

Climate change, or global warming, receives scant attention in Beirut, when it receives any attention at all. 

Yet climate change heralds epochal change: unprecedented heat waves and droughts, an increased frequency of extreme weather events, inundations from sea level rise, severe food shortages – in a world where temperature increase over pre-industrial level is up to 4 or 5 degrees Celsius.

Sea Level Rise: Some 70 percent of Lebanese live on the coast and much of Lebanon’s economy relies on industries that are based there. Sea level rise could leave more than 2 million people displaced, and cause $35 billion’s worth of losses in land, property and infrastructure, as well as incalculable losses of historic and cultural assets.

Severe Droughts: According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we can expect an even hotter and drier climate for the entire Middle East. The temperatures of the hottest summer days between 1961 and 1990 may be comparable to the coolest summer temperatures between 2070 and 2100. Higher temperatures, an ensuing increase in evaporation, a snow cover estimated to fall by between 40 percent and 70 percent before 2040 and a decrease in precipitation massively increase the likelihood of severe droughts. Lebanon, which has just faced one of its driest rainy seasons of the past 60 years, is already feeling a milder version of what’s coming. 

Water Stress and Degradation of Crop Yields: By 2025, an additional 80 to 100 million people in the Middle East will be affected by water stress, which occurs when the demand for water exceeds the amount available. 

This will lead to unsustainable pressure on groundwater resources, and this in turn will have dire implications for agriculture, which accounts for 60 percent of water demand in Lebanon. Water stress caused by climate change will decrease crop yields by 15 to 20 percent, resulting in these yields’ settling at a materially lower long-term average than at present. 

Climate Refugees: Extreme temperatures, water shortages and flooding from sea-level rise will impact not only the Lebanese, but also ongoing conflicts in the region. This will result in increasing numbers of “climate refugees.” 

We are on the cusp of entering into a potentially horrific negative spiral: climate change will make existing conflicts uglier, and new ones may erupt over natural resources; then violent conflicts will amplify the impacts of climate change by degrading infrastructure, decreasing the capacity of governments to function and harming natural resources and employment opportunities. This in turn will increase the likelihood of more conflicts driven by climate change, and so the cycle will continue. 

Human Health: In Lebanon, the annual monetary cost of environmental degradation in 2000 was estimated at approximately 4 percent of GDP, which in today’s terms would equate to some $1.6 billion per year. That’s before the health care costs to the Lebanese. While it is difficult to estimate potential deaths and further displacements from the vicious cycle caused by climate change and regional conflict, it is safe to say that they will place a heavy burden on Lebanon’s health care system. In addition to air and water pollution, extreme weather events, and conflict, human health is also threatened by diseases. 

According to the IPCC, the new climatic conditions would likely favor illnesses such as malaria, cholera, Rift Valley fever and dengue fever, as well as diarrheal disease, which is responsible for approximately 1.8 million deaths per year. Indeed, some vector-borne parasitic and viral diseases are on the rise in the Middle East for the first time in many years. Impact from climatic change can often be minimized with preparedness. This is especially important in developing countries: 70 percent of recent natural disasters occurred in Asia, the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East, where many of the world’s most vulnerable populations reside. 

Adapting to climate change is not enough. Lebanon, whose infrastructure is reeling because of decades of mismanagement, political paralysis and institutional corruption, compounded by a relatively sudden increase of some 33 percent in its population because of the influx of refugees, needs drastic measures in order to survive. Some can be implemented with a modicum of political will, provided the political class understands that the survival of the nation, of our children and those yet unborn, is at stake. 

Here are examples of measures that will help tremendously and will save money and lives. 

First, Lebanon should move toward becoming a 100 percent renewable energy economy. We don’t have any oil, gas or coal but we have lots of sun, wind and biomass. Relatively simple steps are needed: a preferential tariff for renewable energy, the clear right of anyone to produce electricity for their own use and an obligation for Electricite du Liban, the monopoly utility, to buy all renewable energy produced. Then sit back and watch the Lebanese private sector deliver. 

Second, our government must introduce integrated urban water management policies in our cities. In parallel, we must improve our agricultural productivity and irrigation systems and implement innovative solutions to storing water. All of these measures are have already been implemented in other countries. 

Third, it should become mandatory to incorporate resilience into the planning of our coastal cities. For example, permits to build near the sea should become far more expensive; the proceeds can be invested in sea defenses. 

Finally, we need to develop long-term strategies for protecting our cities from sea-level rise. Why not consider moving the seat of government to a new capital? Beirutis would be thrilled: Their streets would reopen and the pressure on their infrastructure would decrease. Government would be based in a new city built to survive. And a smaller Beirut would be able to more easily implement resiliency strategies. 

We need to allow Beirut, Sidon, Tyre, Jbeil, Tripoli and our other coastal cities to survive, adapt and grow in full knowledge of the increasing climate change challenges. Their survival, and ours, is at stake. 

Assaad W. Razzouk is a clean energy entrepreneur, investor and commentator. He is Group Chief Executive and co-founder of Sindicatum Sustainable Resources, a global clean energy company headquartered in Singapore, a board member of the Association for Sustainable and Responsible Investment in Asia, a board member of the Climate Markets & Investment Association and a commentator on climate change, natural capital and clean energy. Follow him on Twitter @assaadrazzouk.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 15, 2014, on page 3.

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