9/5/2019 NAJIB SAAB

The global youth climate movement, which stormed the world over the last months, did not resonate in Arab countries. School strikes or public vigils didn’t happen, and the response was limited to general support statements, issued by individuals and associations largely representing an older generation. Although they likely acted with good intentions, those environmental activists behaved as if they just wanted to join the trend by jumping on board a popular wagon.

Some justified the absence of Arab students from the streets during global climate action by claiming that it was better to issue statements while still attending their classes – although the strike was limited to a few hours. This attitude defies the very purpose of a strike, which is to attract attention to the causes championed and enforce dialogue, by disrupting business as usual. In response to those calling upon students to do their school homework instead of demonstrating for climate action, we never witnessed an Arab youth confronting politicians by demanding that they do their homework before they preach to students to do theirs, as happened in Australia.

The lack of robust response from young people shows that action in Arab countries does not necessarily follow declared intentions. An article published by the World Economic Forum, as part of its annual meeting in Davos in January 2019, proclaimed that “the Arab world’s best weapon against climate change is its young people.” The article was referring to the “Arab Youth Climate Movement,” announced in the months leading to the climate summit, COP 18, which convened in Doha, Qatar, in November 2012. Yet, just two months after the enthusiastic article was published, those same young Arabs it referred to were, absurdly, the only ones absent from a world movement advocating climate action.

When the Arab Youth Climate Movement kicked off in Doha, an article described it as “the new group which is taking the green world by storm.” Enthusiasm for such a movement in the Arab region, especially when it originates in a country which holds the world’s leadership as the highest carbon emitter per capita, is understood. However, good intentions, alone, cannot mobilize young people for genuine climate action. Paradoxically, the founder of the Qatari group happens to be an Indian living in Doha, and whereas the movement never attracted local people, the (then) young Indian man is still touring the world, to this day, representing Qatar, to talk about Arab youth and climate change.

A “demonstration” staged by the group in Doha during COP 18, to demand climate action, attracted a few dozen foreigners, and looked more of a theatrical performance staged for international television networks than a genuine act to influence the country’s politicians toward serious action. Local authorities never committed themselves, during the Doha summit or afterward, to ambitious targets in order to actively engage in international efforts to address climate change, be it actual reduction of emissions, a significant contribution to the Green Climate Fund, adopting stringent water and energy efficiency measures, or even adding sun and wind in notable percentages to the energy mix.

Seven years later, with the “Movement” claiming to have launched national chapters in 15 Arab countries, no actual mobilization or concrete action is to be seen.

The fact is that the Arab populace and governments are more aware of the seriousness of the impacts of climate change, to which their countries are among the most vulnerable. However, in spite of the 22 countries which are members of the League of Arab States immaculately signing the Paris Agreement, there has been no coherent regional approach to address climate change risks. Taking into account the challenges of water shortages and food security in the Arab region, which will only be aggravated by increased drought and sea-level rise, any serious approach should be anchored in the water-food-energy nexus. Arab policymakers should therefore revisit their development strategies with a new nexus perspective.

Just as climate change poses a challenge to Arab countries, it also opens windows of change. National and regional efforts to address the climate change challenge offer an unprecedented opportunity for much-needed institutional reform to maintain the nexus thinking in policy development and implementation, coupled with the adoption of efficiency measures in the use of resources within the limits that ensure sustainability, not only meeting immediate needs. Young people have big stakes in enforcing such changes, but to effect action they should be locally organized around a common cause. They cannot be influential if their actions are not self-motivated to effect actual change for the better, rather than just riding a popular wave. It is essential that Arab youth hold their fate in their own hands, so that other groups that do not belong to their generation and their way of thinking stop speaking on their behalf. In this regard, I recall a visit at my office some years ago by a delegation representing an Arab body working under the tag of youth and the environment, while the average age of the board members was above 60. My advice was either to change the name of the group or change its board.

Years later, the same older people are still sitting on the board of the youth and environment organization.

Ultimately, the challenge remains how to transform awareness into real action, and how to attract young people to play a bigger role. This demands a society free of suppression which safeguards and emboldens free minds, because change cannot cohabitate with fear. Young people should be empowered to challenge the influence of those who deny the urgency to confront the risks of climate change.

One retired Arab official, who represented his country for more than a decade in climate negotiations, recently claimed that climate change fears are a hoax, and that it will have positive impacts, including milder weather in the polar region. He went on to conclude that the world can continue business as usual in burning fossil fuels, as those living in the southern hemisphere, like the Arabs, can eventually move to the warmer north when polar ice melts. The empowered Arab youth should confront such people who are endangering their future, by spreading false assumptions.

In response to my last column on this topic, a young man suggested sending the Arab climate deniers immediately to start a colony in the Arctic, to avoid their harmful effects on society.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 08, 2019, on page 6.