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Wildfires and Conspiracy Theories

Wildfires and Conspiracy Theories

Sunday, 31 July, 2022 - 13:15
Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

Some extreme skeptics of environmental devastation and climate change have developed a hobby of seizing opportunities to interpret reports and events to suit their own distorted illusions. Sometimes they do this by attributing fictitious statements to some officials, and other times by interpreting statements in stark contradiction to their actual content.


These cases have increased recently in our region and the world, prompted by events that populists considered a lifeline for their vanishing conspiracy theories.


US media service Fox News described livestock farmers' protests in the Netherlands against new environmental requirements targeting agricultural production as just the beginning of a global farmers' revolution against harsh environment laws and "climate tyranny". Soon after, former US President Donald Trump supported what he called the Dutch farmers' resistance against "climate fanatics" and the "climate tyranny of the Dutch government".


However, reality is completely different from this distorted interpretation.


The Dutch measures were not against food production, but rather in favor of substituting some items for others, which might result in increasing food supply. Cattle and pig farms have witnessed significant expansion in recent decades, in response to growing export demand, whether for meat or dairy products. Large areas were thus converted to grow fodder, despite the country's small size, which prevented the cultivation of basic food products for human consumption. Livestock farming in the Netherlands, especially cows, is responsible for about 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, specifically methane.


The new requirements as part of measures needed to implement the Netherlands' committed targets to cut carbon emissions – for 2030 and beyond – include reducing livestock numbers. This means that some cow and pig farmers will have to switch to other agricultural activities, such as wheat and plants, suitable for oil production instead of fodder for animals, and reduce the use of chemical pesticides that cause deposits of nitrogen oxide, responsible for polluting the soil and groundwater.


The problem may seem simple and easily solved by reducing meat production and animal feed and switching to crops suitable for direct human consumption. But the reality is that agriculture is a matter of culture and inherited farming traditions, making it difficult to simply force farmers to suddenly switch from breeding animals and cultivating fodder to producing wheat, vegetables and potatoes, for example. But the Dutch market's need for all these other food products, of which the Netherlands imports large quantities from other distant countries, makes a strong argument for the shift.


The realistic solution is to set a workable transition plan, and to give incentives to those shifting to alternative crops. Ultimately, national interests remain paramount, and there is no sacred profession that is not substitutable, especially if this is required to confront the threat of climate change, which threatens human existence itself.


The same groups that promoted farmers' revolt against what they coined environment and climate tyranny in the Netherlands, have recently claimed that the state of bankruptcy that struck Sri Lanka, leading to a popular uprising, had been caused by the country's commitment to environmental measures imposed by international donor organizations. In fact, the ousted Sri Lankan president had issued an abrupt decree in April 2021 to ban the use of chemical pesticides immediately, which led to a rapid slowdown in agriculture and food production.


That decision, which the president took under the illusion that it would help him whitewash his image with international bodies, was hasty and unbalanced. It resulted in disarray without satisfying any party, be it the farmers, the people or the international community, leading to its annulment a few months later.


But limiting the causes of the economic collapse solely to this decision is unrealistic as it disregards the real causes, which are corruption, embezzlement and lack of good governance. This does not mean international organizations are blameless, as their ready-made recipes have often led to social and economic mishaps.


The recipe for eliminating chemical pesticides in Sri Lanka, before finding appropriate alternatives and adopting a balanced transition program, is similar to the recipe presented by an international body to subsidize electric cars in Lebanon at a time when the country was generating no electricity at all as a result of total collapse.


The recent Security and Development Summit held in Jeddah did not escape similar misinterpretations of the conspiracy theorists. Some analysts, who are skeptical of the facts of climate change, went too far in giving their own spin on the clear and firm Saudi position at the summit, which was nothing less than an affirmation of an explicit and declared government policy.


On the one hand, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman indicated in his speech that the energy crisis facing the world today proves the necessity of adopting a balanced mix of energy and not neglecting any component. The fact is that some do not remember the continued importance of fossil fuels except in times of crises. Some maliciously interpreted this as a coup against international climate agreements, ignoring Crown Prince Mohammed's commitment to continue pumping investments into clean energy and reducing greenhouse emissions, through a smooth transition program that respects the capabilities of different countries and helps them achieve their sustainable development goals.


The Saudi position is clear and cannot be misinterpreted, as it affirms that climate change is an undisputable fact, making it an urgent global problem that needs the cooperation of all to confront it, each according to their capabilities and with a fair distribution of burdens.


As for those who interpreted the Saudi statements at the summit as "a refutation of the conspiracies of climate change", they once again completely sidestepped the truth, and contradicted the declared official stance of the country. National rights cannot conflict with scientific facts.


Among skeptics' latest conspiracy theories is what a retired Arab climate negotiator posted on his Twitter account a few days ago, claiming that the devastating fires in Europe are not the result of the unprecedented rise in temperatures, but are rather due to arson meant to trick people into believing that the climate is really changing, and thus trigger a push to accept reductions in carbon emissions. If the fires are indeed arson, are the record temperatures that Europe has never seen before also fabricated and mere illusions? Or are they a conspiracy too?


Balanced solutions that protect the environment and preserve the rights of all should be based on current realities, and cannot be achieved by populist theories and conspiracy nightmares of people living in the past.


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