Middle East Summers Could Become Unlivable By End Of Century

The "father of global warming" has a dire warning for people living in hot, tropical locales.

03/02/2016 11:15 am ET | Updated Mar 02, 2016
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James Hansen has a dire warning for the Middle East and tropical areas: Summer is coming. 

By the end of the century, the so-called "father of global warming" predicts that rising temperatures caused by human-induced climate change will render the countries that already experience hot summers unlivable during those months. 

"The tropics and the Middle East in summer are in danger of becoming practically uninhabitable by the end of the century if business-as-usual fossil fuel emissions continue, because wet bulb temperature could approach the level at which the human body is unable to cool itself even under well-ventilated outdoor conditions," Hansen, an adjunct professor at Columbia University's Earth Institute, wrote in a new paper published Wednesday and co-authored with his colleague Makiko Sato.

The Blame Game

Hansen's prediction means places in central Africa, Southeast Asia and the already conflict-ridden Middle East will suffer some of the most devastating effects of climate change, despite historically being far less to blame for carbon emissions than the industrialized Northern Hemisphere. The United States and Europe are responsible for more than a quarter of all human-made emissions. China is on the hook for another 10 percent, Hansen said. 

James Hansen and Makiko Sato
This chart, included in the paper, shows how individuals in the United States and United Kingdom bear the most responsibility for the carbon emissions causing climate change. 

"There is thus the striking incongruity between locations of largest climate change and responsibility for fossil fuel emissions," the researchers wrote.

Therein lies the problem that has dogged environmental policymakers for the better part of the last decade. For the most part, countries that face the worst effects of climate change benefited the least from the fossil fuel era that caused it. They are therefore less prepared to pay for the economic and environmental overhauls needed to avert a temperature rise about 2 degrees Celsius, after which point scientists predict global warming will render the climate unrecognizable.

"Lesser warming still makes life more difficult and reduces productivity in these regions, because temperatures are approaching the limit of human tolerance and both agricultural and construction work are mainly outdoor activities," the researchers wrote. "Middle latitude countries have a near optimum average temperature for work productivity, while warmer countries such as Indonesia, India and Nigeria are on a steep slope with rapidly declining productivity as temperature rises." 

Drums Of War

What makes this more concerning is the fact that all three of those countries have fast-growing populations that need food, housing and jobs in order to live prosperously. Absent those resources, conflict arises. The civil war that has ravaged Syria for nearly five years may have been caused, in part, by a drought that began in 2006 and forced many farmers from their fields into the cities to find work, according to a 2014 study by the American Meteorological Society. 

"You had a lot of angry, unemployed men helping to trigger a revolution," Aaron Wolf, a water management expert at Oregon State University, told Smithsonian Magazine in 2013. 

Indeed, interpersonal conflict rises by 4 percent and fighting between groups increases by 14 percent for each slight increase of temperature, according to an assembly of 60 quantitative studies covering all regions of the world, cited by Hansen in the new paper.

What Can We Do?

There is hope. The historic climate accord reached in Paris in December may not have had legally binding goals, but it signaled to business leaders and policymakers around the world that humanity was ready, for the first time, to come together to address climate change. In that sense, it set out a framework for shifting to a low-carbon economy. A growing number of businesses have vowed to wean off fossil fuels over the next decade. Plans to regrow forests and absorb carbon already in the atmosphere are taking shape. 

But no meaningful change can take place, Hansen concludes, unless governments put a tax on carbon, a method favored by economists for mitigating the effects of global warming. 

"The overall message that climate science delivers to society, policymakers, and the public alike is this: We have a global emergency," Hansen and Sato wrote. "It will be necessary to include a carbon fee that allows the external costs of fossil fuels to be incorporated in their price. Border duties on products from countries without a carbon fee would lead to most nations adopting a carbon fee."

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