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Climate Change Spells Doom for the Middle East

Stephen Markley

1:53 PM CDT, March 23, 2013

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As President Obama makes his first stop in Israel on his much-touted trip to the Middle East, I think it's appropriate to place the generations of strife in that region into an environmental context. No matter what happens between Israel and Palestine or Syria or Iran, no matter what happens in Iraq or how many reforms Saudi Arabia allows so women cannot be legally murdered by their husbands or how many drone targets in Pakistan Obama adds to the kill list, the Middle East is a doomed and terrifying place for one reason: water.

Take forty seconds to watch this YouTube video posted by Andy Revkin of the NYT’s Dot Earth blog. It shows variations in the supply of freshwater aquifers that millions of people use to drink and grow food. The images were constructed using data from NASA’s Gravity Recover and Climate Experiment satellites from 2003 to 2009 (keep in mind, the GOP has been on a warpath to cut funding for this kind of environmental intelligence). The images represent groundwater reserves from the Tigris and Euphrates river basin, and it’s chilling to watch the blue go to dark red in less than a decade.

(I should also note that while watching this video, an add popped up that said "Own Your Own Oil Well," touting the monthly income one could accrue, which seemed an eerie testament to how deep the fossil fuel industries have their tentacles; seeming to say, "Hey, you're concerned about this water scarcity thing? Wouldn't owning an oil well and supporting an industry that's going to help sop up critical freshwater all over the planet chill you out?")

Unsustainable pumping and drought are the source of this water depletion. The extreme drought of 2007 was a climate-driven phenomenon if there ever was one, and these events will only get more intense. No matter what happens between political and religious factions, no group is going to be able to put water back in the ground, and even if somehow all of the Middle Eastern states got together and meticulously planned on how to best exploit their water resources—which ain’t gonna happen—the trend remains disastrous.

I wish this wasn’t true. I wish the news wasn’t all doom and gloom, but when the oceans are probably less than a century away from a rolling collapse, it’s hard to find optimistic angles. No matter what happens in the Middle East politically, it’s a demographic and environmental time bomb that will continue to go off for the rest of the century (and probably beyond).

In a larger context, this is why I roll my eyes when people talk about “adapting” to climate change. There is no adapting when the most volatile region in the world suddenly runs out of water and sends thirsty, starving refugees spilling in every direction. It’s getting harder and harder to take anyone seriously on this issue because even politicians friendly to the cause speak of the problem like, “Oh, we’ll drive a few hybrids here, shut down a few coal plants there, and everything will tidy itself up.”

Well, no. That’s exactly not what the science is telling us. Due to the time-lag between atmospheric pollution and heat, we have already locked in a terrifying amount of warming, meaning nothing we do today—even if we shut down the planet’s carbon emissions entirely—will stop the Middle East from heating up, getting struck by more frequent, harsher droughts, and having all the silly religions using resource scarcity and human suffering as an excuse to blow each other to hell.

Yet if the world actually wants to see a stable Middle East, it would do well to pay attention to the water supply and the atmosphere’s carbon concentration.