The Use of Climate as a Scapegoat for Governance Abuses and Failures – and Why That’s a Problem

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is tabaqah_assad.jpg
Lake Assad and the Tabaqah Dam

By Peter Schwartzstein

Getting environmental officials to expound on their countries’ crises can be futile in much of the Middle East and North Africa (and well beyond). These officials might not want to talk about pollution because they have no plan – or wherewithal – to tackle it. It can be difficult to draw them out on the causes of degraded landscapes as they’re generally powerless to stifle the perpetrators. Even biodiversity die-off is often out. It can be too closely linked to their own governments’ policies.

There is one subject, though, where many of these public officials have considerably less reserve, and that’s climate change. As a devastating global phenomenon for which most of their states are only marginally responsible, many feel it’s the safest of ground. In discussions across these regions, previously tight-lipped interviewees have frequently become outright voluble when I’ve solicited their thoughts on drought, desertification, dust storms, and more. ‘Ah, benign territory!’ their expressions sometimes seem to suggest. 

There’s a tremendous upside to this heightened interest, of course. With some of the fiercest climate stresses in the world and some of the most limited efforts to adapt or mitigate the damage to date, many Middle Eastern and North African states desperately need to face up to these threats, particularly in the field of climate security, where they’re feeling the pressure more than most. Indeed, some already are. A number of African states have redirected up to 10% of their GDP to combat stresses from climate change. The sooner laggard officials are moved to concrete action the better.

But within this welcome, increasingly comfortable embrace of climate realities there are also the makings of another danger, one that’s understandably fallen by the wayside as the world focuses on ambitious action on climate change. Cynical and/or opportunistic politicians are seldom shy about exploiting global concerns, such as counterterrorism or anti-corruption efforts, to their own ends. And so it’s proving with climate stresses. Having wised up to its scapegoating – and aid-spinning – potential, a number of governments have been quick to utilize climate change as a foil for their own largely non-climate-related failures, even as they continue to drag their feet about confronting the crises themselves.

In Syria, for example, the regime of Bashar Al-Assad singled out weak rainfall as a cause of popular anger as the country began to convulse early in 2011. Speaking in parliament in March of that year, Assad said that “what added to the problems was that we had four years of drought, which damaged our economic program.” He wasn’t wrong, but by identifying one grievance for which he wasn’t really responsible he looked to shift attention from the many that were, such as natural resource mismanagement, unsustainable food policies, failing water infrastructure, and sectarian favoritism, among others.

In ailing Lebanon, it’s all about the climate too, officials say. In an interview in 2019, Fady Jreissati, the country’s environment minister until last summer, was only too happy to discuss the country’s increasingly erratic temperature shifts. He was considerably less forthcoming on the consequences of rampant political mismanagement, which many observers see as the most debilitating source of Lebanese environmental troubles.

In Sudan, the past two water ministers have stuck to carefully worded scripts when talking about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), an issue where the current government and its predecessor have struggled to balance competing interests and alliances. Not so on climate change. They can’t be blamed for that, nor, rightly or wrongly, do they feel they can do much about it. “It is vital that America and China and Europe fix what they have broken,” an aide to former president Bashir told me in a not unreasonable, but nevertheless exaggerated and self-serving take. “Because if they don’t there is no way Sudan can prosper.”

And in Nigeria, the government has repeatedly invoked climate change in discussing the conflict with Boko Haram in the country’s northeast around Lake Chad, an assessment that here too isn’t necessarily wrong, but that arguably ignores the impact of years of poor governance and political marginalization. It’s just an “easier narrative for them,” says Murtala Abdullahi, a climate and security expert with Abuja-based HumAngle and fellow at the Goro Initiative. 

In some instances, this blurring of climate and non-climate causation might be at least partly rooted in scientific illiteracy. After effectively ignoring environmental issues – or anything tangentially related to them – for decades, many top officials across the Middle East appear genuinely uncertain as to where or how climate risks strike. This is perhaps especially true of regional militaries, who have been notably slow to recognize climate change’s destabilizing potential and who had rarely previously concerned themselves with issues they saw as ‘soft.’

(To be fair, parsing where climate risks and non-climate environmental troubles begin and end can be tricky, even for those who work in the field.) 

Ultimately, though, much of this manipulation of climate narratives smacks of cynical track-covering, particularly when it emanates from many of the more science-savvy technical ministries. For example, Egyptian water officials undoubtedly understand that the Nile’s deteriorating water quality is largely a consequence of agricultural, industrial, and municipal wastewater dumping within Egypt, but that hasn’t stopped them from emphasizing climate’s role in sullying the river, as they’ve done to me on numerous occasions. Sea level rise and saltwater intrusion are hammering the Nile delta, but they’re part of a wider crisis of mismanaged resources and are not central to pollution south of Cairo. As in other fields and within other regions, the full picture often loses out when there’s a clear political incentive to paint a narrower one. 

Were this just another means for elected or unelected statesmen to explain away their inadequacies, it might be a largely victimless annoyance. But there are consequences to muddying the waters on an issue as lethal as climate change. For citizens, this emphasis on climate’s rhetorical usefulness over climate action threatens to leave them even worse equipped to withstand heightened stresses at a time of greatest need. Among donors and aid organizations, this dishonesty is already fueling question marks over partner governments’ commitment to joint climate change adaptation projects, according to several NGO coordinators I spoke with, all of whom wonder whether some officials’ interest extends beyond receiving financial assistance. 

This manipulation of the climate narrative might even slow efforts to bolster understanding and action on global climate security. Fearful of letting culpable parties off the hook – or the appearance of doing so – some analysts seem to be rejecting the possibility of a climate-conflict nexus, despite considerable evidence, precisely because of the possibility that a strongman will embrace that narrative and gain himself additional political ammunition. Authoritarians have established track records of externalizing blame, with climate simply being the latest ‘opportunity’ to cross their paths.

The change in US administration certainly brings huge new opportunities for global climate action. But with its strong declared interest in confronting these challenges, it also brings with it a risk of even more rhetoric-rich, action-poor climate discourse, as international policymakers look to ingratiate themselves with DC on one of its top priorities. Since January, there’s been a notable uptick in foreign government-sponsored think tank events on climate change, while Middle Eastern diplomats, for one, haven’t been slow in identifying climate as an ‘in’ with the administration. (A number of them have solicited my advice and that of my colleagues for useful talking points.) 

The challenge then for President Biden’s team is to ensure that heightened chatter over climate change doesn’t remain the stuff of speeches and self-serving narratives, but that it translates into meaningful support for those in the eye of the climate storm. 


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