The renewed violence in Gaza could not have come at a less opportune time for the climate agenda in the Middle East. This already vulnerable region now finds itself preoccupied with fresh or mounting dangers capable of deteriorating local levels of resilience and disrupting fragile climate initiatives, even as the existential threats of warming grow. From energy economics to environmental degradation, the ripple effects of conflict will complicate the path ahead.
Over the past few decades, climate change has led to an increase in drought severity, with dire impacts on agriculture, resource competition, and living conditions. Climate change acts as a threat multiplier in this already fragile region. While it does not directly cause violence, its effects can exacerbate grievances and instability. When conflict does erupt, it often securitizes natural resources, reducing community resilience to climate impacts.
The intersections between conflict and climate are particularly clear in the Gaza Strip. The isolated enclave of 2 million people faces urgent climate threats amplified by war and instability. Once an oasis between the Mediterranean Sea and arid deserts, the Israeli blockade and violent conflicts have left Gaza environmentally devastated.
Climate change is expected to further reduce already declining rainfall and agricultural productivity in the strip. Rising temperatures will exacerbate water scarcity.
But the current blockade and bombardment has ravaged infrastructure and prevented adaptation. Israel had cut the electricity and diesel supplies to Gaza, which dramatically curtailed available energy for the strip. Only one of Gaza’s desalination plants is working, at 5% of capacity, and another two are non-operational due to lack of fuel or electricity. None of Gaza’s six wastewater treatment plants are operating for the same reason, causing 130,000 cubic meters of untreated sewage to flow to the sea daily. An environment degraded by war cannot withstand climate stresses.
The current hostilities in Gaza and the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict are unique in many ways. However, the current round of violence can serve as an example of how regional conflicts can undermine regional and global climate action.
First, a prolonged Gaza conflict could slow the pace of the global energy transition. The limited conflict has temporarily pushed oil prices to $92 a barrel, but World Bank estimates suggest that they could rise to anywhere between $93 and $157 depending on the level of escalation of the conflict. Conflict-driven spikes in energy prices would mean that energy security concerns will once again trump energy transition initiatives, entrenching the power of fossil fuel interests worldwide. With parts of the region's economy deeply embedded in oil exports, turmoil may embolden voices skeptical about phasing down hydrocarbon production and accelerating the transition to renewables.
Second, the war may lead to an increase in energy prices more broadly, reducing the fiscal room for maneuver of import-dependent nations and piling more inflationary pressures on their economies. Higher oil prices coupled with slowed economic growth could negatively impact climate action by reducing wealthier nations’ willingness and ability to fund initiatives in poorer states.
At a time when climate impacts are accelerating, the world can ill afford policy stagnation. But as was seen with the Russo-Ukrainian war, conflict often shifts short-term priorities away from long-term threats like climate change. Economic instability sparked by the Gaza war could similarly see climate efforts shelved in favor of security and recovery. This myopic but predictable pattern highlights the need for climate resilience to be embedded in economic
Third, the war may hinder climate cooperation between Israel and Arab states. In recent years, Israel has been actively engaged in climate diplomacy with signatories to the Abraham Accords as well as Egypt and Jordan. It has created some partnerships on climate initiatives related to water conservation, renewable energy, and more. But this cooperation could wither as the Palestinian cause galvanizes Arab public opinion against Israel. While discreet technical meetings of experts may continue —
This could jeopardize planning for November-December’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (28th Conference of the Parties, COP28) in Dubai. Israel hoped to use the event to showcase growing Arab-Israeli ties and was planning a one thousand-strong delegation — one of the largest ever by any country to the climate summit — including the prime minister, president, and many government officials. However, with Gaza under siege and the Palestinian civilian death toll mounting daily, senior Israeli officials are unlikely to participate, and the size of the delegation is likely to be scaled back.
COP28 would be an opportunity for the international community to confront Gaza’s plight as a microcosm of climate injustice as well as for civil society groups to link Gaza’s plight to climate vulnerability. These voices can remind leaders of displaced and vulnerable communities across the region that share a common plight.
COP28 also offers a chance to boost funding and support for fragile states struggling with conflict, climate impacts, and lack of resilience. The summit should explore inextricable links between peace and environmental sustainability. Climate change exacerbates scarcities of resources like water and food, inflaming tensions. So easing climate strains through aid and adaptation can bolster stability.
More broadly, the war highlights how climate action and Middle East peace are interlinked. Progress on one supports the other. Climate change acts as a threat multiplier in fragile regions, but mitigating emissions and boosting adaptation can also bolster stability by easing resource strains. This applies to most regional conflicts, from Syria to Yemen and from Libya to Iraq.
Aid should be coupled with policy creativity. At COP28, leaders must view climate solutions through a peacebuilding lens. Investment in green technologies can create jobs and growth while cutting emissions. Climate adaptation projects can build ties between communities. Water-sharing agreements can turn potential flashpoints of contention into opportunities for cooperation.
These initiatives require nuanced planning. Badly designed low-carbon strategies risk unintended impacts. Renewable energy or afforestation projects may displace communities or spark new grievances. Equity, inclusion, and human security should be integral to climate action.
The road ahead promises more obstacles and uncertainty. But progress must continue despite the barriers conflict erects. With vision and courage, leaders can promote both peace and environmental sustainability. No single summit can resolve these interlinked challenges. Yet COP28 offers a chance to place vulnerable populations at the center of the climate agenda. Through foresight and moral clarity, the region can chart a course to a just and sustainable future.
Karim Elgendy is an urban sustainability and climate consultant based in London, and a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Photo by Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images
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