Dubai may seem a strange place to host the Twenty-Eighth United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28), which convenes at the end of the month. The United Arab Emirates has the world’s fourth-highest per capita CO2 emissions. Its economy is heavily dependent on petrochemicals. Freedom House ranks the Emirates as “not free”; democracy is all but nonexistent. The Emirati minister tasked with heading the meeting, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, is the CEO of an oil company (the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company).

And yet, there are at least two reasons that this year’s conference has the potential to provide the world with an opportunity to make progress against the scourge of climate change. The first reason is that, even as the Emirates seeks to increase its oil production, it has also shown real interest in adopting meaningful climate policy. This paradoxical situation is common among oil-producing countries in the region, and the balance between these two goals will have the potential to affect the region’s climate future, as well as global energy markets. Secondly, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is reeling from instability and violence; tragically, it has become the poster child for how climate change is a threat multiplier. This fact should draw the world’s attention to COP28, and underline the importance of its work.

Thus, the limitations of Dubai as a venue also represent the pressing realities of climate change for the MENA region. And global policymakers cannot run from these realities. They must embrace this opportunity for action, as imperfect as it may be.

The top goals of COP28 are to examine the progress on the first Global Stocktake, a mechanism to assess what has been achieved under the Paris Agreement; to get the “loss and damage” fund—which was established at COP27—up and running; and to agree on a language for the Paris Agreement’s Global Goal on Adaptation. Past COP summits have yielded mixed results; positive outcomes are often grindingly slow and incomplete. For example, when COP27 established loss and damage financing, activists cheered, but wearily—the concept had been in discussion for thirty-two years.

Nevertheless, COP continues to be vitally important in pushing the global and regional conversation forward. Even in repressive countries, there is an opportunity for the kind of theater that advances a cause—witness the protests that occurred at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. And while results of the meetings are often incremental, they are steps forward, which is something few other venues for climate change can boast.

Even in repressive countries, there is an opportunity for the kind of theater that advances a cause.

Less tangibly, but also importantly, the COP format boosts the attention, energy, and narrative around climate change action. This is a benefit with outsize importance in the MENA region, which is wracked by conflict, much of it caused or fueled by climate change—but where climate change remains a back-burner issue in politics and policy. The need for a drastic increase in attention to climate change in the MENA region could not be more urgent.

Climate as Threat Multiplier

The MENA region is perhaps unparalleled in illustrating the potential of the climate crisis to be a threat multiplier. From Iraq to Morocco, water shortages, desertification, climate-related pollution, and extreme heat are turbocharging conflict and instability.

Research by the International Energy Agency has found that temperatures in the MENA region between 1980 and 2022 have increased by 0.46 degrees Celsius per decade, well above the world average of 0.18 degrees Celsius. The temperature increase has a domino effect on other climate conditions, such as a decline in precipitation and an increase in droughts. The region is predicted to be one of the first in the world to “effectively run out of water.” These extreme weather events will have a profound impact on social and economic conditions. Climate change amplifies the dangers of seemingly unrelated problems, including poor governance, crumbling infrastructure, and political instability.

This September, the collapse of dams in Libya provided a tragic example of the ability of climate change to amplify other threats. Storm Daniel, a tropical-cyclone-like system, drew on Mediterranean waters that were two or three degrees Celsius above normal to dump eighteen months’ worth of rain around parts of the region. Yet while the storm caused extensive and expensive damage in Greece, in Libya, it became a historic catastrophe, overwhelming dams upstream from the city of Derna. Floods killed some 20,000 people in the city.

A top lesson of the storm was that years of war and government neglect posed a sleeper hazard for Libya. A climate change-fueled storm revealed, painfully, the depth of the country’s vulnerability. The MENA region is disturbingly full of such latent risks, especially in countries that are politically and economically dysfunctional, like Sudan, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine.

Less headline-grabbing but also serious, climate change poses a danger to the region’s economies—which is a knock-on threat to social stability. A 2022 study by the IMF found that temperature shock, or an increase by one degree Celsius in annual mean temperature in Bahrain, Djibouti, Mauritania, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates—the five hottest countries in the region—would lead to significantly lower and more volatile economic growth. The region’s population is young and rapidly expanding. Poverty and unemployment levels in many MENA countries are already worryingly high. It is thus easy to see how a shock to economic output from climate change would be much more than an inconvenience—it could spark a serious crisis. Unrest, mass migration, and conflict could follow.

The MENA region provides another unfortunate lesson to the world on climate change: a warming planet makes conflicts more likely and more severe, and conflict, in turn, makes it even harder to cooperate in the way that climate action requires. The war between Israel and Hamas will interfere with the work at COP28—even as the bombardment of Gaza makes the environmentally beleaguered territory ever more vulnerable to climate shocks. Yet COP28 participants must work through their differences and stay focused on the bigger picture. Cooperation on climate has to continue among rivals and even enemies. This, again, is the MENA reality—something from which policymakers can neither run nor hide. If anything, the unfolding bloodshed and humanitarian crisis in Gaza should refocus energy on the environment and climate.

The Oil Wealth Paradox

Meanwhile, the economies of many MENA countries rely on oil and gas extraction. In the coming years, climate policy will not only need to ease the economic burden of shifting to renewables, but will also have to grapple with the fact that petrochemical profits will actually be financing that transition.

The Emirates, host to COP28, is the perfect example of this paradox. Al Jaber, the meeting’s head, is not only the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company but also leads the emirate’s renewables sector. The Emirates is the world’s seventh-largest oil producer, and its leadership has been lobbying to increase its oil production quota in recent years. A Climate Action Tracker report found that an increase in oil production is set to undermine the Emirates’ ability to meet its pledge to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2030.

But there is another side to the Emirates’ story. The country also plans to invest $54 billion in renewables over the next seven years. Despite uncertain and incomplete data, it seems that emissions in the Emirates decreased between 2015 and 2020 because of an increase in the efficient use of gas in the electricity sector. The Emirates also has three of the world’s largest solar plants, and according to governmental estimates, the Noor Abu Dhabi solar park, which opened in 2019, will eventually reduce the country’s carbon footprint by 1 million metric tons per year. For that reason, the Climate Action Tracker has updated the ranking of the Emirates from “highly inefficient” to “inefficient.”

COP28 participants must work through their differences. Cooperation on climate has to continue among rivals—and even enemies.

Many countries in the region share the Emirates’ structural paradox—an openness or enthusiasm for renewables while continuing to rely on oil and gas. Excluding the oil industry from the conversation will not work. And while it’s undeniably disturbing that six hundred fuel industry lobbyists attended COP27, it’s also inarguable that climate policy investments in the Gulf and elsewhere will be financed, in part, from oil and gas production. Further, the Emirates has the experience and tools to guide the conversation about renewables in oil-dependent countries—especially in countries like Iraq, which lags far behind.

What COP28 Can Achieve

While a climate crisis and its consequences are not unique to the MENA region, the speed and impact of climate change there are especially ferocious, and the need for a coordinated response is especially urgent. COP28 represents an important opportunity for political and economic elites, as well as representatives from civil society and nongovernmental organizations, to enter into conversation with each other. This is true not only for the main agenda items of the meeting, but also for tangential issues like the cross-border use of water. Think Turkey’s dams and downstream water shortages in Iraq and Syria: COP28 won’t yield new agreements, but it is an opportunity to talk and advance the conversation.

Rather than bemoaning the location of COP28, participants should seize the opportunity. The Gulf countries have the resources and the institutional capacity many other MENA countries lack, and the conference can represent an important step toward setting energy transitional goals and addressing the region’s oil dependency and undiversified economies. The challenge is to find a balance between the harmful impact of oil production and gas flaring on the environment while also using oil resources for energy transition and renewables. This is not an easy balance to find, but it can’t be wished away. Oil-producing countries will need to participate in the global transition to renewables.

In addition to achieving the goals outlined in the COP28 vision, there are three outcomes in particular that activists could seek from the conference that correspond to the issues outlined above:

  • a clear roadmap for intra-regional cooperation and climate diplomacy, which includes pathways toward collaborations and treaties;
  • economic tools and strategies, with a clear, achievable timeline, for oil-dependent countries to accelerate their economic transition toward more renewable and diversified economies, while taking into account that not all oil-dependent countries have the same capacities; and
  • a climate response via funding and projects on the ground to minimize the impact of climate as a threat multiplier in extremely vulnerable countries like Libya and Palestine.

In addition to these quantifiable outputs, there are important issues that COP28 will need to grapple with this year—and on which there is potential for progress.

It is unavoidable that the war in Gaza—which could impact the wider region—will overshadow COP28. The conference thus has the difficult task of highlighting existing climate injustice, setting response strategies for wider conflict impact on the environment, and reintroducing climate and the environment as a critical aspect of conflict impact and resolution.

As for governance, the region has no choice but to try to make progress on climate change despite democratic deficits, corruption, and incompetence. Yet the climate crisis also underlines that these problems represent existential risks. If they are not corrected, MENA countries will never achieve the level of investment and cooperation needed to face down one of humanity’s great challenges.

Most importantly, the region doesn’t exist in isolation from the rest of the world, and no meaningful regional policy can be fully effective without the biggest environmental offenders, such as the United States and China, committing to goals of minimizing carbon emissions. This, too, must be a focus of the proceedings at COP28.

As the region enters one of its most challenging economic, political, and social periods—and its relationship with the West, especially the United States, is strained—climate change and environmental degradation must remain at the core of the conversation and stabilization efforts. Otherwise, an unaddressed climate crisis has the potential to destabilize the region further, with catastrophic consequences.

Header image: An Emarat petrol station is pictured with the Burj Khalifa on September 7, 2015, in Dubai. Source: Warren Little/Getty Images