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The Muslim world and climate change, by Murad Qureshi

Speaking at a meeting of the Organization of Islamic States in Istanbul in November, Bangladeshi President Zillur Rahman called on the Organization of the Islamic Conference to take a lead in combating climate change and to support countries like Bangladesh that are fighting global warming even though they contribute little to its cause.

Up to now, the OIC’s record in responding to this call has been poor. A 2007 study concluded that “efforts by wealthier Muslim states are imbalanced, with many of them doing very little and not acknowledging the urgency of the issue. Saudi Arabia, who holds most of the purse strings of the OIC, has long been a skeptic of climate change.”

Indeed, the response of Saudi Arabia’s lead climate-change negotiator at Copenhagen to e-mails leaked by the University of East Anglia was to say that “It appears from the details of the scandal that there is no relationship whatsoever between human activities and climate change.”

Looking at annual carbon emissions per capita in the Persian Gulf states, it is immediately apparent that the figures are much worse than even for the United States, which is usually seen as the villain of the piece. For example, according to the International Energy Agency, Qatar’s annual emissions stand at 58 metric tons per capita, the United Arab Emirates’ at 29.9, Bahrain’s at 28.2 and Kuwait’s at 25.1, whereas the figure for the United States is 19.1. These emissions are even more astonishing when compared with the figure for Bangladesh, which stands at 0.25 of a metric ton per capita. It makes you wonder what is being done in these rich Arab Gulf states to produce such huge emissions.

As for discussions on climate change among the Arab states, here again the problem is the reluctance of the ruling elites in oil-rich countries to support any measures that might reduce demand for oil. This is despite the fact that the Middle East is particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures, with vast areas of agricultural land between Egypt and Iraq expected to lose fertility as a result of global warming.

In November, at the launch of the UN Population Fund report on climate change in Cairo, UNFPA officials pointed out that 15 percent of people in the Arab world already have limited or no access to potable water and that water scarcity induced by climate change was expected to cut food production in the region by half. They called for more cooperation among the Arab League, the UNFPA and Arab nongovernmental organizations to help governments draw up appropriate policies.

A report released in November by the Lebanon-based Arab Forum for Environment and Development criticized the near-total lack of research data on climate change in Arab countries and called on Arab nations immediately to draw up adaptation and mitigation plans. One of the authors said, “We have no data about the effects that the greenhouse-gas emissions in the atmosphere will have on our coastal zones, even though we know they are very vulnerable,” adding that this makes creating plans to reduce risks from climate change difficult.

We have come to expect very little from the OIC in major global environmental summits such as the Copenhagen talks. We hear much talk about the importance of the “ummah” as the basis for international unity among Muslims, but the oil-rich states have so far shown little sense of unity with their co-religionists over such a critical issue for mankind as global warming.

In addition to reaching an agreement on limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, the other bone of contention at the Copenhagen summit was clearly money — that is, how much wealthy countries should be paying poor ones to help them deal with climate change.

Given the huge sovereign funds that many of the oil-rich Muslim-majority states are sitting on, derived in essence from the sale of hydrocarbons, and given that the burning of these fuels makes a major contribution to greenhouse gases, you might think the oil producers would feel some moral obligation to the nations that suffer the consequences of global warming.

Moreover, at present the huge funds that the oil producers possess are usually invested in property and assets in the developed world, when investment in the developing world in green industries and the low-carbon economy could well give them better returns and certainly a better conscience. Now that would be a grand idea for all those funds standing idle in bank accounts in the world’s major cities. In the meantime, some zakat to those on the front line of climate change in such countries as Maldives and Bangladesh is surely not too much to ask.

Murad Qureshi, a British Labor Party member, is a minister of the London Assembly.

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