I just spent ten days in Houston, Texas. The weather was hotter than anything I’d experienced in the past seven years since I first started regularly visiting that city. In general, when temperatures climb, one feels asphyxiated. For some inexplicable reason, the air is so thick it feels like you are breathing oil. The effect is to make you dream of the colder climes you have visited or lived in. For me, one of the places that first came to mind was Boston, where the weather at this time of year is not only moderate but sometimes also carries a whisper of a chill, heralding the approaching autumn and the customary explosion of variegated colour.
In Houston, my second stop on this trip, the heat was palpable, a phenomenon you can best appreciate when you step out of an air-conditioned building and hit the sunlit furnace. But relative temperatures in Boston and Houston aside, weather news in the US as a whole did not bode well at all, even to the perpetual optimist inside me. From every direction came undeniable reports of record highs and, combined with the unprecedented spread of wildfires, a general panic has set in, best summed up by the question, “What the hell is happening to our planet?”
As anyone who has been following political developments in the US during the past few years will know, public discourse has been dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq. But the climate change controversy has also had a goodly share. In the US, as elsewhere, opinion is divided between those who accept the unanimous conclusion of the scientific community that greenhouse gas emissions are threatening life as we know it and the deniers who insist that the current spike in temperatures is just one of those phases in one of the earth’s cycles. The debate entered the official realm when president Barack Obama signed the Paris Climate Accords in which state signatories from around the world agreed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from factories and to take other incremental measures in order to cool the planet down. Then along came president Donald Trump, one of whose precipitate decisions was to withdraw from the accords, rendering them ineffective. The US together with China are the most air polluting countries in the world. Since then, the problem has grown so urgent that President Joe Biden made returning to the Paris Accords his first priority on taking office.
Essentially, the problem is that humanity, as the result of a succession of industrial revolutions, has begun to compete with the sun as a producer of planetary heat. Over time, the planet’s resistance to overheating deteriorated because, as we know, heat rises; its excess created an ever-increasing hole in the protective ozone layer. The general trend has been to lay the blame for this entirely on humanity, while the sun, the main source of our planetary heat, has remained innocent. That is until Brian Sullivan, in Bloomberg of 22 May, pointed an accusing finger at the sun beneath the headline “Solar Storms are Back”.
“A few days ago, millions of tons of super-heated gas shot off from the surface of the sun and hurtled 90 million miles toward Earth,” he writes. “The sun began a new 11-year cycle last year and as it reaches its peak in 2025 the specter of powerful space weather creating havoc for humans grows, threatening chaos in a world that has become ever more reliant on technology since the last big storms hit 17 years ago.” He explained that while invisible and harmless to people on the surface of the earth, “the geomagnetic waves unleashed by solar storms can cripple power grids, jam radio communications, bathe airline crews in dangerous levels of radiation and knock critical satellites off kilter.” In other words, in this high-tech digital age, the extra solar heat can wreak compound disasters.
Of course, the writer is not a scientist and, therefore, not in a position to make prognoses. However, the point is that the problem is not just about rising temperatures but also about their consequences and, specifically, how these relate to floods, the destruction of towns and villages, and breakdowns in transport and communications.
In 1947, a group of atomic engineers, meteorologists and other scientists created the Doomsday Clock, representing the countdown to global catastrophe and planetary destruction as a result of manmade technologies. Midnight on the clock stood for that hypothetical apocalypse. A Science and Security Board was formed to meet twice a year to discuss global developments and “reset” the clock, if necessary, based on their findings and on consultations with supporters of the concept who include 15 Nobel Prize laureates. Perhaps the most precarious moment registered by the clock was in 1953 when the US and the Soviet Union began testing hydrogen bombs. The board set the clock forward to two minutes to midnight. The safest time was in 1991 after the two superpowers signed the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The Doomsday Clock was set backward to 17 minutes to midnight, which is still a short period relative to the human lifespan.
I do not know what happened to this clock. What is certain is, first, that the doomsday indicated by the clock will arrive eventually and, secondly, that only God knows exactly when. Meanwhile, all we ordinary humans can do is to observe the phenomena as they unfold, which is far from a pleasant pastime.
Perhaps what this bleak backdrop calls for is a new chapter in globalisation with all the challenges it presents to mankind. In this regard, Saudi Arabia has embarked on a global collective scientific drive premised on the fact that fossil fuel burning is responsible for much of the deterioration. The basic aim of the project is to turn oil into a non-pollutant source of energy by reducing its carbon emissions through a process called decarbonisation. Still, it is important to bear in mind that, although there is a lot of CO2 producing oil out there in the world today, there are also a lot of human practices that cause massive wildfires, not to mention innumerable heat-producing machines that people use to shorten time and distance and modify the weather, such as cars and plays and air-conditioners. Such subjects also came up for discussion during the last G20 summit, which was chaired by Saudi Arabia in 2020. Covid-19 is another concern that presents globalisation with great challenges in many areas. In fact, the pandemic may prove a window that sheds a clarifying light on a broad array of global concerns, including greenhouse emissions.
What surprises me most at this point is that despite all the suffering and commotion, there has been very little discussion of the question, “Where do we begin?” Can the Paris Accords, now that the US has rejoined them, deal with the grave issues related to humanity’s survival? Surely at the Arab and Middle Eastern regional levels, global warming and water shortages should stimulate some collective regional thinking. The disasters we have already seen are many and alarming.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly