Shifting Sands: Juan Cole on Middle East Climate Woes

When it comes to the Middle East and the environment, many of us think first about the area’s role in petroleum production. But climate change is hitting this desert region hard – making it both a geopolitical and a literal hotbed. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, a noted blogger, and a Middle East expert. We discuss the struggle for clean air and water in the face of extreme heat in Iraq, Iran and Egypt and contrast it with record flooding currently affecting Pakistan. We also take a look at the negative environmental impacts of desalinization, a staple in desert nations and a solution many are calling for globally as fresh water becomes increasingly scarce.

00:00 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:21 Juan Cole – The rest of the world doesn’t have a firm idea of how, how extensive and unusual this disaster is. I mean, in an ordinary information system, we should be looking at Pakistan and saying, Oh no, you know, the the climate emergency is here for real now and that’s not, that’s not a message I think we’re getting from our media.

00:45 Narrator – When it comes to the Middle East and the environment, many of us think first about the area’s role in petroleum production. But climate change is hitting this desert region hard – making it both a geopolitical and a literal hotbed. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, a noted blogger, and a Middle East expert. We discuss the struggle for clean air and water in the face of extreme heat in Iraq, Iran and Egypt and contrast it with record flooding currently affecting Pakistan. We also take a look at the negative environmental impacts of desalinization, a staple in desert nations and a solution many are calling for globally as fresh water becomes increasingly scarce.

01:48 Alex Wise – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Juan Cole. Juan is a professor of history at the University of Michigan and a long-time blogger – Informed Comment is his website. Juan, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

02:03 Juan Cole – Thanks so much.

02:04 Alex Wise – It’s a pleasure to have you on the show. I’ve read your writings for so many years now. Now you wrote recently… you’ve dived into giving us a glimpse of the various Middle Eastern countries and how they’re being affected by climate change. Why don’t we start with this region in Iran, Abadan, and what they are encountering right now in terms of heat?

02:29 Juan Cole – There have been new records set in in Abadan in southwestern Iran this summer, with temperatures getting up to 122 Fahrenheit. These are dangerous temperatures that we’re seeing in the region.

02:45 Alex Wise – And talk about their water usage in Iran’s decade long drought and how it’s affecting not just Abadan, but the entire country. Well, Iran really only has one big river system. And again, it’s in the southwest of the country, the Karun River and its tributaries. And the former Government of Iran under the Shah, the King, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown in 1979.

03:17 Juan Cole – But while he was in power, he initiated a lot of dam works in hopes of creating artificial lakes that would yield irrigation possibilities, but then also to make hydroelectricity, and these monumental projects were pursued by the Shah without much consultation with local people or much understanding of local conditions. And so some of the water now has been diverted to a big agricultural use and that has hurt Iraq, where the water used to flow into from Iran. And now there’s this long, long term drought that we’re seeing that’s similar to the mega drought that we’re having in our American Southwest. And so major bodies of water like the Zion Durood, the major river that goes through the city of Esfahan, have dried up that that river over which there is a historic bridge from the 1600s, does not exist at the moment, and farmers are not being able to irrigate as they used to from these streams, and have demonstrated against the regime. So the government clearly is not dealing very well with the heat and it really threatens Iranian agriculture, threatens peoples livelihoods, food sources, and it has geopolitical implications because Iraq is furious that it’s not getting the water from the Karun anymore.

04:59 Alex Wise – Yes, I want to dive into that in a second and turn to Iraq, but just staying with Iran for a minute. What are the geopolitical consequences of this drought and possible agricultural shortfall in terms of embargoes and how Western countries might approach negotiating with Iran moving forward? How dependent is Iran on foreign imports for example?

05:27 Juan Cole – Yes, well, Iran imports a lot of food and most modern countries can no longer feed themselves. They’re part of a globalized trade, trade in commodities like grain. The US sanctions, which were very severe, they were called by Trump the “maximum pressure campaign,” have had a horrible effect on the lives of everyday people. But those sanctions don’t target food imports or medicine, medicine imports. The sanctions do weaken the earning power of people in Iran. And so there may be medicines they can’t afford as a result of the sanctions and there may be certain kinds of food that they can’t afford, but the sanctions themselves don’t target that sector. I think the bigger political fallout from the drought and what I see is the government, the Iranian Government’s lack of ability to address it with engineering and administration is that the rural sector could turn against the Iranian government and the rural sector has been a pillar of this, of this government. So that’s bad news for Tehran.

06:44 Alex Wise – So let’s turn to Iraq for a moment, if you will. You wrote not that long ago on Informed Comment, a post titled “19 years ago, America really wanted Iraq’s Basra for its oil, which is now making it uninhabitable.” Why don’t you explain for those who aren’t familiar with Basra, this is vital oil producing region and what it’s facing with climate change.

07:12 Juan Cole – Iraq’s major oil fields are in the South of the country or around the River ring port of Basra. Those oil fields had been under US sanction after the Gulf War because Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, it was illegal in international law, and the US and the UN put sanctions on Iran oil exports as on Iraq, 6 oil exports as a result. And it’s my thesis that one of the reasons for the Iraq war was not so much that Bush and Cheney wanted to steal Iraq’s petroleum, I think they just wanted to open it up for exploitation and allow American oil majors to get in there. And they couldn’t under the sanctions regime and as long as Saddam Hussein was in power, I think there was very little likelihood that the Congress would take off those saying. And so I think it occurred to Dick Cheney, in particular, that were they to overthrow Saddam Hussein and have a new government, then the sanctions would go away and the oil would be available for exploitation, which is what happened. And Iraq is a major oil producer now, exporting 44 million barrels a day, which is quite substantial.

08:45 Alex Wise – Yes, I mean, I remember when Trump was running, he was like, why aren’t we just stealing this oil?  He was almost looking at the Bush Cheney administration and their play in the region as naive. But there’s other ways to steal than just going in there and taking it, as was evidenced by Halliburton in the region, let’s say.

09:04 Juan Cole – Yeah, well, Trump’s idea of stealing it is anyway implausible. I don’t know how exactly you would. Yeah, the term he used was to take the oil. I don’t know if he thought it was sitting there in barrels and we could just load it on ships and take it away. But sure, the Bush and Cheney I don’t think wanted to expropriate. Iraqi oil, they just wanted it to be available on the market for exploitation and the oil companies would know how to get in there and get it out and sell it and make a profit. Oh, which is what happened. Hey, China benefited from this a little bit more than they had the Americans had initially hoped. But the US oil majors also benefited and it benefits the oil industry because without Iraqi oil, gasoline would probably be $10 a gallon and everybody would be buying a Chevy bolt on going electric, which is not good for the future of the oil industry and so I think they already knew in the late 90s and early 0’s that. The petroleum industry is not a long term proposition, and there’s a real danger of it being eclipsed by by other ways of using energy. And so they wanted they wanted it to be more abundant and and less expensive in price. In fact, Rupert Murdoch boasted about the Iraq war, he said. You’ll all change your minds and support it once you see that oil is $14.00 a barrel, so they didn’t want, you know, a high oil price. They wanted one that the oil majors could make profit off of, but but which would keep consumers in line. So, well, some of this is a little speculative on my part. It comes from reading Chinese speeches and Kazakhstan and so forth, but I I’m convinced that this was one of the drivers of the of the war. And no, now we many people knew and Michael E. Mann, the great climate scientist who’s now at the University of Pennsylvania, new at in the late 90s, that burning all that petroleum was going to alter the climate of the earth and in fact the oil majors themselves knew and were told by their scientists that this was very dangerous and they hushed it up. And they then launched a 30 year disinformation campaign on the rest of us to deny climate change, but the chickens are coming home to roost, so all that petroleum that Iraq exports and gets burned is putting enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which is heating up the earth, and it turns out that that heating process is not smooth. It’s not affecting everywhere equally. There are bumps in the Earth’s climate. So the Arctic, for instance, is warming four times faster than the than the average of the of the whole world. And the Middle East is warming twice as fast. So the Middle East is getting hit particularly hard by this phenomenon.

12:10 (Music Break)

12:47 Alex Wise – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Juan Cole. He’s a professor of history at the University of Michigan. It’s a good opportunity for us to turn to desalinization efforts in the region. It’s something that Californians have been looking at and in the West in general, as we’re getting deeper and deeper into this drought, we look at any kind of solution if we can’t just get steady rainfall. There’s a lot of water in the ocean. United Arab Emirates gets 100% of their drinking water from desalinization plants, but this leads to some unintended consequences with the handling of the byproduct of these plants and I’m curious if this sludge that gets created by desal is affecting these river deltas that you’re talking about with Iraq and Iran at all.

13:45 Juan Cole – Yeah, not so much the river deltas, but the Persian Gulf itself, which is a big important body of water and very polluted with, you know, oil tankers have spilled into it and all kinds of runoff is there from agriculture and chemical plants. But yes, the current technology that is being largely being used for desalinization has an environmental flaw which is that the way that the water is desalinated is it’s it’s taken up from the ocean and distilled and that creates clean water when you recover the vapor, but then what’s left behind is the salt and the heavy metals and the more toxic elements in the water, and then they dumped that back into the ocean and if you do that consistently. After a while you create a dead zone where fish cannot live, and dead zones are very common throughout the world. There’s a big dead zone off of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico, and that’s just from agricultural runoff. But the desalinization plants also have this problem. And I believe it’s one of the reasons that when a desalinization plant was proposed for Huntington Beach, the population voted against it because they they depend on their beach for tourism and they don’t want a dead zone.

15:13 Alex Wise – And this is like the more traditional desalinization technology there. There are promising new technologies on the horizon, but the ones that are being used in the Middle East are generally these dead zone producing plants, correct?

15:28 Juan Cole – That is correct and that’s the major form of the technology at the moment. Obviously engineers need to attend to this and fix the problem. So that the desalinization plants can do their work without doing such environmental damage. But a place like the United Arab Emirates, which is on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, is very arid. I mean, it’s basically desert, and because of its oil riches. It had a labor shortage. Local people couldn’t fulfill the labor that the oil industry created, and so they brought in enormous numbers of guest workers from all around the world. Indeed, probably there are only about a million citizens of the United Arab Emirates. Which are seven, you know, traditional principalities that gathered together into one country, but there are eight. And so the native population is just overwhelmed by these immigrants who are never given citizenship, however. So all the power remains with the million United Arab Emirates resident citizens. But that place could not support that kind of population of 9 million people. Its ecology just doesn’t wouldn’t allow that if it weren’t for things like desalinization. So providing the water from the gulf, it doesn’t have enough water in its aquifers. And it doesn’t get rainfall. So, you know, people don’t. In in North America, we’re in a temperate zone and we get a lot of rainfall at least in most of the country. I lived in Egypt for four years altogether, off and on. I think I got rained on about 3 times and it would be for like 15 minutes, so it doesn’t rain in that those areas. So the only place you’re going to get water is from the sea. So, and Israel, by the way, depends heavily on desalinization plants and the Gaza Strip, which is largely Palestinian, desperately needs. One, because its aquifers are being invaded by the salt water and people, when they make their coffee, they can taste the salt and it depends on its underground water Gaza. If things go on like this, it will become uninhabitable.

18:07 Alex Wise – So turning to transportation for a second one. Obviously, America has the largest per capita carbon footprint in the world. And so it’s doing its part to create these harsh conditions that we’re speaking about in the Middle East. But I went to Egypt for the first time. You had mentioned that you lived there for four years. I finally got a chance to go last Christmas and one of the things that really hit me entering Cairo was with the amount of vehicles and mostly older, not the cleanest burning cars, let’s say it was just. It’s an overwhelming sensation just trying to cross the road there. I can’t help but think with these heat indices getting higher and higher and and these drought like conditions that the very fragmented transportation sector with lots and lots of older cars is going to really lead to some health consequences from the bad air and when you combine it with what you were talking about with the sandstorms it sounds like a real recipe for disaster.

19:15 Juan Cole – Yes, well, Cairo in particular is a little bit like Los Angeles that it’s subject to. Some kind of heat domes, you know, in Los Angeles you’ve got mountains on one side and in the ocean on the other, and it can create immovable air for a long period of time, and it can be air that’s extremely hot Cairo is a kind of bowl in the in the Nile River Valley between the eastern and western deserts, and so it it also can experience those inversions. And yes, the sand and the dust blow into the bowl from the desert, and you can see it if you’re in a plane above Cairo. But then also it’s an industrializing country and so it has a lot of textile factories that produce pollution. And as you say, traffic in Cairo is a, it’s a big parking lot and is it’s horrible. So when I was living there in the 70s, I actually had this, my T-shirt was black around the collar at the end of the day. And there’s there are big problems with various sorts of lung disorders in in Cairo. Uh, I think some of the factories that were most polluting have moved out from the city and and so maybe the situation has improved a little bit, but it is the air quality in in Cairo is not good and obviously the country is very heavily dependent on fossil fuels. It is a minor producer of gas itself and also imports a lot of petroleum and the small oil monarchies of the gulf depend on the mighty Egyptian army for their security to some extent, and so they provide petroleum to Egypt at discounted prices, which encourages its use. So you know there there is some movement in Egypt towards sustainability. They’ve set up some fairly impressive solar installations in in the desert. They, you know, most countries have a problem with solar is that it’s it’s bulky and you have all those panels and you have to think where you’re going to put. But Egypt doesn’t have this problem. Egypt is really just the Nile valley where people live, and the rest of the country is mostly desert. So they can have as many solar panels as they like, but they haven’t got very many yet and I think there’s maybe pressure on them from the Gulf oil states not to go heavily in that direction yet so as not to undermine the oil.

22:01 Alex Wise – Is that they have an electric grid for homes, but also I would imagine for the transportation sector. I noticed very few if any electric vehicles there, for example.

22:11 Juan Cole – No, no. Well, electric vehicles haven’t made an impact in the Middle East yet. The inexpensive ones are produced by China for the domestic market, and I think it’s only when they start exporting their inexpensive electric vehicles that you’ll probably see people and the rest of the world get them in any numbers. India is producing an expensive electric car or the Tata Corporation that may also get exported.  Places like Egypt, but no, so far they’re they’re big on petroleum. They are very heavily fossil fuel society and of course they do have the Aswan Dam on the Nile and that produces a lot of hydroelectricity. So they’re a little cleaner than they would otherwise would be. But there’s this problem with the Nile now because of the extreme heat and the evaporation from Lake Nasser behind the dam. And then Ethiopia is making a grand Renaissance dam that Egypt is afraid will reduce water flow to the Nile. And there’s very severe tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over that dam, to the point where some commentators have talked about the possibility of war. So there’s water scarcity. The climate emergency is creating very tense geopolitical relations in the region, which could explode if things get much worse.

23:34 (Music Break)

24:51 Alex Wise – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Juan Cole. He’s a professor of history at the University of Michigan. You mentioned India producing electric vehicles, Juan. Pakistan, its neighbor to the West, is part of the Middle East under some maps as well, and not that far from the region we’ve been discussing. They are suffering from historic floods and feeling the effects of sea level rise as well. Not that far away from Egypt or or Iraq you have. A country that’s suffering from the exact opposite problem.

25:29 Juan Cole – Yes, the climate emergency manifests itself in different ways. So the Indian Ocean is much hotter than it used to be and hot water creates a lot of water vapor above it, which goes into clouds, and so you get more rainfall off of the ocean. And then also because it’s hotter, it’s changing the pattern of the winds over the Indian Ocean. So these changes possibly also some changes that happen occasionally in the jet stream have pulled the annual monsoon rains, which hit India and Pakistan every year, up further N than they used to go and have made them more torrential because there’s more water and so the monsoon hit Pakistan just with the force of a sledgehammer coming down the rivers that flow into the Indus Valley and the Indus Valley itself flooded it flood on a biblical proportions, I mean some observers who’ve seen the satellite photos say that we now have a new see in the world which is in southern Pakistan. The water has formed a body of water that’s visible from space, and it’s likely to be there for several more weeks before it starts to subside. So it’s estimated 1/3 of the country has been inundated. Millions of people have been made homeless because  their homes were swept away or went underwater and 80 percent, 4/5 of the livestock in the country are dead. The rest of the world doesn’t have a firm idea of how extensive and unusual this disaster is. I mean, in an ordinary information system, we should be looking at Pakistan and saying, Oh no, you know, the climate emergency is here for real now. Now and that’s not, that’s not a message I think we’re getting from our media.

27:47 Alex Wise – Juan Cole is a professor of history at the University of Michigan, and People can read his blog.  Informed Comment at Juan, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:01 Juan Cole – It’s great being here.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Jerry Garcia & David Grisman, David Byrne and John Martyn. Check out our website at to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.