Young Arabs are waking up to the existential climate crisis that imperils their future. The nascent Arab Youth Climate Movement’s efforts to respond to climate change in more than 15 Arab countries gives hope that the grassroots initiatives may galvanize actions to fight the climate problem. However, the movement faces limitations in a region that is beset with numerous other crises—wars, refugee crises, deadly sectarian divisions, economic stagnation, and authoritarianism.
July 2019 was the hottest summer on record. It was proof that the changing climate has never been so real all across the world, but, particularly, in the Middle East, where temperatures this summer averaged 42-45 degrees Celsius, with some areas reaching 50-54 degrees Celsius.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are on the frontlines of a deadly heatwave that is bound to become recurrent. The Max Planck Institute in Germany predicts that 200 days of extreme heat may become a new normal in this region by the end of the century. Scientists have been ringing alarm bells for many years that some parts of MENA will become unlivable under conditions of prolonged heatwaves, dust storms, and droughts, if nothing is done with climate change. No other people will suffer more than the Arab youth, who will inherit this rising cataclysm.
Scientists have been ringing alarm bells for many years that some parts of MENA will become unlivable under conditions of prolonged heatwaves, dust storms, and droughts.
There are some ongoing initiatives to fight climate change in the region. For example, young Arabs work closely with the United Nations (UN) on Sustainable Development Goals, which includes addressing climate change.
“Young Arabs are increasingly worried about climate change and what it will mean for their future,” Mohamed Lahmami, youth Co-Founder and President of World Merit Morocco, told Inside Arabia. “They want to do something about it and learn how to most effectively make an impact at local levels. We help build them up.”
World Merit is a global network of young activists fighting pressing social issues at local levels. Overall, however, addressing climate change has not been a priority for much of the MENA region due to protracted wars and conflicts in numerous countries and chronic political and economic problems. Oil-rich and more developed countries in the Arabian Gulf have not stepped up to the plate because their financial interests and political power will be at stake if they stop exploiting fossil fuels. There has been a visible absence of grassroots protests, including youth activism, against climate change in most of MENA, which stands in contrast with recent vocal youth climate strikes in the West.
In a region plagued by youth unemployment and conflicts, daily survival is more important to many young people than fighting climate change. Moreover, because authoritarianism is still prevalent in MENA, where public protests are not tolerated and are often harshly put down—however peaceful they may be—it is not surprising that there are no climate protesters on the streets. That does not mean that youth climate activism in MENA does not exist. While street protests may not be their modus operandi, educational and lobbying activities are increasingly becoming essential tools for young Arabs to voice their concerns about climate issues and influence their governments and people.
In a region plagued by youth unemployment and conflicts, daily survival is more important to many young people than fighting climate change.
An organization that emerged leading up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Doha, Qatar, in 2012, as part of the 18th session of Conference of the Parties (COP), was the Arab Youth Climate Movement (AYCM) – the largest climate advocacy group in MENA with chapters in over 15 Arab nations. AYCM activities are not on front pages of global media outlets, as, for example, youth strikes in the West led by the 16-year old Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg, but they have quietly made some inroads in MENA since 2012.
Individual AYCM chapters have taken different forms. Its Egyptian chapter has been campaigning against coal as a source of pollution. Activists in Egypt believe that the country could and should rely more on solar power generation than natural gas or coal, which would cut both carbon emissions and help develop the country. The Bahraini branch of this movement is focused on sustainable agriculture and health. Raising public awareness about climate change and conservation of energy have become priorities for AYCM activities in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Saudi Arabia, one of the leading world oil producers, even pledged to adopt more renewable energy, namely solar, in an effort to become more sustainable. Informational campaigns about climate change and its connection with concrete environmental, economic, and social problems in the MENA region and the world became a focus of AYCM chapters in Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon, Algeria, and Morocco. Sudan launched educational programs in universities about climate change and its environmental implications. Libya began educating children and young adults about climate issues. Qatar’s AYCM, supported by the Directorate of Climate Change at the country’s Ministry of Municipality and Environment, works closely with young people to raise awareness about the warming planet and changing their daily habits to cut food waste and carbon emissions. Qatari activists also launched an initiative to connect people with outdoors by organizing nature trips. Leaders of this youth movement in MENA have also been engaging with their respective governments to push for climate adaptation actions and embrace energy efficiency technologies. This movement received strong enthusiasm and support both at home and abroad.
However, as climate change intensifies every year, affecting everything from food supply to access to water and arable land, particularly in conflict-prone areas of MENA, it is uncertain whether AYCM will grow from primarily an informational and educational platform and some lobbying to a more unified regional group with stronger political demands from their respective governments. AYCM does acknowledge that it faces limitations with going “full on” under the current political environment in many Arab countries.
Authorities in most Arab nations would consider any public activity or even a peaceful protest as an attempt to incite a rebellion, violence, or even revolution.
Authorities in most Arab nations would consider any public activity or even a peaceful protest as an attempt to incite a rebellion, violence, or even revolution. In fact, Arab governments have been cautiously watching the growing youth climate activism within their borders, and young activists know that. Local broadcast and press media have not exactly been their allies since they are mostly under state control. Independent media would be important conduits of information on climate issues and connecting them with local problems that ordinary people can relate to. It is a huge dilemma for climate activists in the region to step up their actions without being seen as disruptive to the state, while the status quo threatens their future well-being.
Another problem for AYCM is funding of its various activities. Often, AYCM leaders struggle to raise money to organize or attend important international events on climate change—a crucial educational, promotional, and networking opportunity with allies around the world. Lastly, unifying more than 15 Arab countries to debate climate issues and agree on any action is a major hurdle for them. Most countries in the region cannot even agree domestically whether climate change is a problem to begin with due to the lack of objective information, debate, and the prioritization of other pressing problems over climate matters. So far, AYCM’s relative success has been concentrated at local levels. Therefore, a much-needed regional consensus on how to tackle climate change, since it knows no national borders, currently remains just pie in the sky.
The Arab youth has a huge task ahead to fight this crisis. AYCM has been a commendable and strong start for young people in MENA. But how much it can grow to make an impact beyond raising awareness about the climate problem is yet to be seen. To be fair, environmental and climate advocacy groups everywhere face an uphill struggle to influence their governments and societies. But it is even more difficult in MENA where the level of recognition of the problem is not where it should be, while the stakes are getting higher and, to a large degree, more urgent than in other regions of the world.