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Why Climate Is Also on the Agenda for War-Torn Nations

Iraq and Yemen have far more urgent problems to think about than climate change, right? Wrong. And they're in Paris to deal with it.
Pierre Longeray
Paris, FR
December 10, 2015, 7:40pm
Photo by Etienne Rouillon/VICE News.

With just 24 hours left to hammer out their remaining disagreements, international negotiators are now entering the homestretch of the Paris climate summit ending Friday, which many hope will lead to a historic climate action plan.

But among the 195 nations taking part in the talks, several are facing emergencies seemingly more pressing than climate change: They are facing devastating conflicts back home. Yet, even as their civilians struggle to survive bombings and war, some of these countries have sent delegates to deliberate environmental issues in the cozy rooms of the Le Bourget conference site, north of Paris.

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And while you might think that countries like Iraq or Yemen have more pressing matters to attend to than a rise in global temperatures, issues of climate and security are very often intertwined.

"The situation in my country is particularly difficult, because we have seen a deterioration of our environment," Iraqi president Fuad Masum told other heads of state and government at the opening of the summit. The "future" impact of climate change is already visible in Iraq, where civilians are struggling to cope with increased droughts and desertification, as well as intensifying sandstorms.

Yemen's vice president Khalid Mahfuz Bahah echoed Masum's sentiment in his own address, noting that three weeks before the conference, a rare cyclone had devastated the Yemeni island of Socotra, which he described as one of the "jewels of biodiversity in the world."

Related: Welcome to Yemen, Where War Has Turned Cities Into a Living Hell

Both leaders urged their fellow delegates to endorse ambitious climate targets, with Bahah inviting leaders to sign a "legally binding agreement." The world's "shared interests," he hoped, would outweigh any disagreements.

Delegates from Yemen and Iraq are difficult to flag down in the corridors of the sprawling conference site, and our requests for interviews went unanswered.

But despite the absence of an Iraq or a Yemen pavilion at the conference, both countries duly submitted their "Intended Nationally Determined Contribution" (INDC) — an outline of each country's climate targets, which will play a key role in shaping any deal.

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Other countries torn by conflict, such as Syria, did not submit an INDC and have not sent any representatives to Paris.

Climate and conflict: two converging agendas

"Two of the biggest drivers of change in the world — now and in the future — are climate change and the changing nature of conflicts," said Kishan Khoday, head of climate-related policy and programs for the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) for Arab states.

The UNDP is the largest provider worldwide of grants for sustainable human development. In 2015, the agency manages a $2.3 billion portfolio of climate-related projects in over 140 countries. As part of the UNDP, Khoday works with various Arab states, to help them develop their climate policies and implement environmental measures, in line with the objectives listed in their INDC.

"These two issues — climate change and conflict — converge in some parts of the world, including the Middle East," Khoday said during a break from meetings at the conference. "The areas facing conflict are also some of the most at-risk from climate change, with more severe and frequent droughts, land degradation and water insecurity exacerbating social vulnerability and serving as barriers for longer-term recovery from crisis."

The most recent illustrations of the double challenge of climate and conflict are currently found in Syria and Iraq — conflicts that are characterized by complex interactions among multiple actors, including the Islamic State, various rebel insurgencies, regular armies and an international coalition that is struggling to keep a united front. Environmental issues can often compound conflict, said Khoday.

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Related: These Nations Are About to Start Running Out of Water

For countries like Yemen and Iraq, environmental initiatives are — way more than an issue of national "conscience" — a cornerstone of development. "The negative consequences of climate change are already disrupting these countries' development trajectories, with potential to reverse development trends by mid-century," the expert said.

Khoday also addressed the direct consequences of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, singling out the destruction of factories and oil installations, which pollutes the water and land, damaging ecosystems and posing a serious risk to the health and safety of civilians.

"Owing to converging trends of both climate change and conflict in recent years, ecosystems find themselves disrupted and residents of the affected areas are forced to migrate," said the UN expert, describing this phenomenon as "the hidden consequences" of the combined threat.

Affected populations have re-settled within other communities of Syria and Iraq, but also in Lebanon and Jordan, where host communities live in a precarious situation and are struggling to cope with expanding drylands, and energy and water insecurity. Thus, displacement and migration complicate an already ecologically fragile situation within the host communities.

Sustainable economic growth

These are not the first examples of a conflict negatively affecting a region's ecosystem.

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During the Gulf War in 1991, millions of barrels of oil were spilled into the Persian Gulf when retreating Iraqi troops set fire to wells and damaged pipelines, causing significant damage to coastal habitats, water pollution and the degradation of farmland.

Speaking at the opening of the summit, Iraq's president Masum said that environmental deterioration in his country was due to "successive armed conflicts." The country's officials, he added, has spent the last 40 years blithely ignoring "the pernicious effects of climate change."

In countries like Iraq, the PNUD steps in to promote sustainable economic growth. "In Iraq, we have an initiative that helps finance the development of solar energy, in order to reduce the domestic demand for oil," said Khoday.

But does Iraq, which boasts one of world's biggest oil reserves, stand to gain from switching to cleaner energy?

"A country like Iraq has everything to gain from switching to an energy that is cleaner than oil. Mainly because it allows them to reduce the intensity of domestic energy demands and thus retain their energy reserves for export," explained Khoday. Oil revenues can then be better used to finance future recovery and development initiatives that will benefit future generations.

Iraq is not alone in having adopted this type of initiative. "Low-carbon, climate-resilient solutions are also being supported in communities in Lebanon and Jordan that are hosting refugees from conflicts in neighboring countries," said Khoday. "In line with the broader United Nations Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan, UNDP is helping to establish 'solar aid' initiatives to expand the use of decentralized solar solutions, in order to meet the basic needs of refugee host communities."

All eyes will be on world leaders Friday, as they sign what many hope will be a historic deal to limit climate change and its devastating effects on the planet. On Wednesday night, diplomats were handed a concise but unfinished draft of the agreement. They now have just 24 hours to settle any lingering disagreements and reach consensus on the remaining "bracketed statements" – areas of the text that have yet to by unanimously endorsed.

Related: The Syrian Civil War Is a Toxic Catastrophe in the Making

Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray