Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment and Development magazine

Is it the Beginning of a New Extinction Era?

 The summer of 2023 recorded the highest temperatures in the world, along with natural disasters the likes of which we have not witnessed before. It is true that fires and floods are natural occurring phenomena, but this summer they swept through new areas, and were distinguished by their size, intensity, breadth and recurrence over a limited period of time. No sooner would a fire be extinguished than a flood would wash away entire towns, as happened in Libya and Greece, as if the world had entered an endless destructive cycle. While previously we used the phrase "unprecedented" every few decades or years to describe extreme phenomena and events, this phrase has entered daily use, in scientific reports as well as in the media and in people's casual chats. But we should refuse using climate change as an excuse to cover up bad planning, corruption and discrepancies in inadequate infrastructure, be it a water dam, bridge, sewage network or forest management.

The melting of ice in the North and South poles, and the fires in the Amazon forests and other spots at the far corners of the Earth, were considered by many as mere science fiction, or at best a warning of events that may occur. However, what is happening around the world today has brought humanity out of the waiting room and ushered it into a new era. And if in the past the reference to a "new era" heralded cultural and scientific progress, today it is closer to a warning of decline and destruction, as if humanity has already entered an era of extinction.

The kind of science closest to the public is the one that bears a human element, as it is not limited to abstract numbers, but rather links them to human life and suffering. In this regard, the description which I came into from the Dutch naturalist Martin Loonen, after he returned from his last research expedition to the North Pole, was eloquent testimony that we are entering the danger zone.

For 35 years, Dr. Loonen has been making regular trips to the polar island of Spitsbergen to research geese. This time, he was amazed at what he saw with the naked eye, without the need for measuring instruments. He was shocked by the rapid and sharp change in climate conditions, and not by the geese, the subject of his research. While he expected that the arctic geese would likely be able to adapt to the changes by migrating to other regions of the earth, he ruled out that humans would be able to adapt, in the absence of large and rapid confrontation measures. For the first time since he began his research in the region in 1988, he did not need gloves to warm his hands, as the temperature reached 12 degrees Celsius. As for the iceberg, which has been attached to the island for ages, it was melting quickly and moving away from it, exceeding this year a distance of 3 kilometers. While some of the ice melted every year during the warmer months, it used to freeze again, not as is the case now when it melts permanently.

Some smart mouthed skeptics say that what is happening is the result of natural cycles that occur every few thousand years. However, there is a huge difference between former times and nowadays. The change in temperature that occurred during the previous natural cycles took thousands of years, which allowed humans, living organisms, and nature sufficient time to adapt, in contrast to the rapid change that we are witnessing today. In addition, it was easier for nomadic and roaming human groups to adapt to the changes thousands of years ago, because migration was part of the nature of their existence, which does not apply to today's settled societies, with their sources of food and culture, and their economic and social fabric, which transcended the era of nomadism.

So should we expect today's societies to carry their farms, factories, museums, universities and hospitals on their backs and move? In their opinion, people can move from places that climate change makes uninhabitable, to other places in unknown regions, where climate change may improve life conditions.

Martin Loonen returned from the Arctic this time with great concern for the future of his grandchildren, because failure to stop climate change in order to reduce its devastating effects will destroy their life or force them to move to other places. Some societies may go from hosting economic refugees to seeking shelter themselves as climate refugees. Those who think this is closer to a science fiction scenario should remember that a continuing changing climate, rising ocean temperatures, and polar ice melting at a fast pace, may lead beyond seasonal waves of fires, floods, and droughts, to constant devastation. Rising sea levels will submerge large low-lying areas around the world, forcing their inhabitants to leave, if they find a way to do so.

That is why Dr. Loonen saw in the European fires and floods this season a positive aspect, as the problem was already at home and in their backyard, and impossible to ignore. As was the case in Europe, this season's major fires and floods did not spare any other regions of the world, from the United States and Canada to Asia, Africa and Brazil. The Arab region was not spared from the effects either, reaching a climax in the Mediterranean hurricane which struck Libya, swallowing over 10,000 people and devastating vast areas.

At the Africa Climate Summit recently held in Nairobi, the continent's leaders issued a warning about the meager amount of funding for measures to limit climate change and confront its effects, despite the promises made at every international conference by the rich countries that were the main cause of emissions. The Arab countries must also issue their own warning at the regional climate conference to be hosted in Riyadh next month, in preparation for COP28 in Dubai at the end of the year. But instead of the usual complaints and cries of helplessness, there are serious initiatives being presented by some Arabs this time, in the field of climate action and environmental protection.

The most prominent practical program at the regional summit in Nairobi was the UAE's pledge of $4.5 billion for investments in clean energy projects in Africa. On the eve of the Riyadh meeting, Saudi Arabia announced two new initiatives to confront the impacts of climate change and revive nature: the first is the establishment of the International Water Organization in Riyadh, in order to manage water in a rational manner, by enhancing efficiency and developing resources in a balanced manner. The second initiative declared specific goals to revive natural reserves, by planting millions of trees and resettling huge groups of animal and plant species by 2030. This is in addition to major programs for a rapid transition towards a green economy.

The upcoming climate summit in Dubai is an opportunity for forward-looking countries to commit to measures that reverse the downward plunge towards the age of extinction.