Iraq is literally overheating. Temperatures are increasing twice as fast as the global average. Baghdad is already suffering intolerable heatwaves. Around the country, years of drought have turned fertile land to desert. Roughly three out of five children in Iraq have no access to safely managed water services.

The doom-scroll of worrisome facts about climate change in Iraq could go on and on. And it should—the situation is dire. The International Organization for Migration has ranked Iraq as the fifth-most vulnerable country, in terms of climate change, in the world.

But Iraq is not the only country facing elevated risks from climate change, nor are its meteorology and hydrology unique. The country’s unfolding catastrophe is the result not of geographical destiny, but of human action. Specifically, it is the result of a history of colonization, international intervention, poor homegrown governance, and decades of environmental neglect.

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As in Iraq, so too the region. All of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is deeply vulnerable to climate change. And although some MENA countries have very carbon-intensive economies—many are based on extractives—they account, in total, for only about 5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, even their best efforts at reducing emissions will have only limited local benefit in alleviating the MENA region’s share of climate change damage.

The question, then, is how Iraq and other countries can mitigate the accelerating effects of climate change. A new, open-ended Century International project, “Living the Climate Emergency: Lessons from Iraq,” attempts an answer: Iraq must reckon with its history, and find the policy levers that will allow it to survive and develop in a dangerous and unpredictable new era. Effective responses to the climate emergency will likely have more to do with people, governance, and old-fashioned accountability than technology and international agreements.

The first report in the project, “The Deep Roots of Iraq’s Climate Crisis,” dives into the events that have made Iraq so vulnerable. The story starts with Saddam Hussein’s destruction of Iraqi marshland—an ecosystem of global importance, and home to an ancient culture—and his gutting of Iraqi institutions during the period of Western sanctions. The U.S.-led invasion of 2003 was even more devastating, dumping toxic waste and munitions, institutionalizing ethno-sectarianism, and further destabilizing governance. The cost of rising pollution was brutal: cancer rates in Iraq increased some forty times from before the Gulf War until 2005. An increasingly disease-burdened populace is in a weakened position to face the additional burdens of climate change, such as when water mismanagement and droughts push farmers off their land and into urban slums, where their rural skills have no value.

More recently, Iraq’s government has made some gestures of commitment to fighting climate change—ratifying the Paris Agreement in 2021, for example. But state action remains wishful thinking. Institutions remain feeble from the Saddam era and the U.S. occupation, not to mention civil war. The country is still addicted to oil, which not only stymies participation in the global effort to reduce emissions, but has also created a one-dimensional economy and corrupt state that are unable to make the nimble changes that climate change is already requiring. On the horizon are problems like mass migration, more severe water shortages, economic stagnation, and ever-more-costly extreme weather.

The conclusion of the report—and a guiding principle for the rest of the project’s work—is that economic, social, and political context matters. Further, climate change in Iraq must be demystified. It is not an abstract future threat; it is a measurable process that is already dragging down the country. A subsequent report in this project will examine how climate and environmental degradation impact the daily lives of Iraqis. Later reports will look at Iraq’s neighbors and their existing climate crisis, as well as some of the successful steps taken by other rentier economies and why Iraq remains far behind. A public roundtable in August will discuss the project’s initial findings. Next, in the lead-up to the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference in November (COP28), the project will build on these analyses to begin reframing the climate debate away from the agenda of rich fuel exporters—and, instead, toward the people who will suffer the most if action is not taken.

With these analytical axes in place, policy becomes a matter of sequencing and priorities. Iraq, however, is still far from such a reality. And the need for change could not be more urgent.