Climate change is not as predictable as we want it to be

At the end of the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago, the North Atlantic region, which had been gradually thawing, chilled dramatically. Temperatures in Greenland fell by 10 degrees in a decade and Europe returned to the deep freeze for more than a millennium, before, just as rapidly, it warmed up and the great Ice Age came to an end.

The Younger Dryas, as it is known from a typical tundra flower of the time, showed how sensitive climate can be and how quickly it can shift. It is widely believed to have been caused by the upset in ocean circulation caused by huge volumes of meltwater from the North American ice-sheets.

This episode is relevant to today’s debate on tackling human-caused climate change. Recent work by researchers from Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute has highlighted the risk that melting of the Greenland ice cap, under the influence of global warming, could have a similar effect. Northern Europe is at the same latitude as chilly Labrador, but much warmer because of currents bringing water from around Florida. If these were deflected, Europe’s climate could become much colder, disrupting agriculture, transport and liveability.

The Younger Dryas may have had repercussions in the Levant, with suggestions that colder, dryer conditions forced the population to take up farming cereals – the first seeds of the great agrarian civilisations of the Fertile Crescent. In recent years there has again been widespread and long-lasting drought across the eastern Mediterranean.

Much assessment of the damage from climate change – and how much we should pay to avoid it – has assumed the climate will change steadily and predictably. But the environmental economist Martin Weitzman points to the small – but very real – chance of much bigger, catastrophic changes, such as disruptions to the south Asian monsoon or worsening of California’s dry spell. This makes it worthwhile to invest heavily now in reducing emissions and prepare for the unavoidable impacts of climate change.

The wealthy Arabian Gulf countries may feel desalinated water, sea defences and air conditioning make them immune to sudden climatic shifts. But they import nearly all their food and are surrounded by populous neighbours dependent on snow and rain-fed agriculture, with huge populations in low-lying areas exposed to rising sea-levels.

Pakistan and Egypt are struggling with insecurity while Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and now Yemen are at war. These conflicts are driven by repression, poverty and state failure, but drought may have sparked and shaped their emergence. Climatic disasters could worsen them or trigger new upheaval.

As Mukad Al Jabbari, Norman Ricklefs and Robert Tollast pointed out in a recent Foreign Affairs article, Iraq and Syria already suffer badly from water shortages that largely come from upstream use by Turkey. A recent flight over Iran showed Lake Orumieh reduced to a wasteland of salt, a calamity that has raised environmental debate within the country.

The current surge of refugees into the Levant and now Europe is only a foretaste of what might come after a major climate catastrophe, which would cause difficulties for the GCC.

While the Gulf needs to cope with its own outsize carbon footprint, this is only a modest part of global emissions. It would be welcome to see other leading oil exporters besides the UAE playing a constructive role in December’s forthcoming climate talks in Paris.

The GCC should work with the European Union and United Nations to strengthen its neighbours’ climate resilience – such as by mediating water disputes – and researching and encouraging water-efficient technologies. Even more important is reducing regional conflict and building stronger states that are responsive to their people’s needs.

Well-governed and wealthy regions such as California can cope with even severe climatic problems. It is the combination of failing states and climate change that could be catastrophic beyond national borders.

Robin Mills the is head of consulting at Manaar Energy and the author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis.

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Robin Mills

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