The first World Cup to be held in the Middle East is highlighting the region’s intense vulnerability to climate change, as host nation Qatar is in the midst of a strong heat wave that new research shows was made more likely by climate change.
Daily average temperature ranged between 5°F and 10°F higher than the historical averages this week. On Sunday, the average temperature in Qatar was 82°F, 10 degrees above the historical average for that date, according to the meteorological site Weather Underground.
While weather has always varied day to day and week to week, and no given weather event can be attributed solely to global warming, the climate change research organization Climate Central has built a model that projects the range and likelihood of temperatures on every date in every location worldwide, and adjusts it based on the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. It has found that the unseasonable heat over the last week in Qatar was “at least twice as likely because of climate change.”
“These are the warmest places on the planet,” Andrew Pershing, director of climate science at Climate Central, told Yahoo News, referring to the Arabian Peninsula. “It’s warming a lot relative to its natural variability.”
The current heat wave, climate scientists say, is just a small taste of what is to come in the region. According to a study published in June in the Review of Geophysics, temperatures in the Middle East are rising nearly twice as fast as the global average. For example, in southern Iraq, temperatures have increased by 1.8°C (3.2°F) over the last 30 years, while global average temperatures have increased 1.1°C (2°F) since the late 1800s.
The United Nations has said Iraq is the country that is fifth most vulnerable to climate change. Summertime temperatures in the southern part of the country now regularly exceed 50°C (122°F), and the resulting water scarcity in an already hot, dry area has caused many residents to leave.
Iraq is not the only Middle Eastern nation dealing with droughts and facing the prospect of worse ones to come. Twelve of the world’s 17 most “water-stressed countries” are in the Middle East, according to the World Resources Institute. The effects of water shortages on agriculture and public health will cost Middle Eastern countries between 6% and 14% of their gross domestic products, according to World Bank estimates.
The effects of climate change may even be fueling conflict in the region. Between 2006 and 2009, Syria experienced its worst drought in 900 years, causing massive crop failures and an uptick in food prices. The combination of farmers who lost their livelihoods and moved to cities seeking jobs and public unrest over the economic crisis helped fuel the Syrian civil war, according to experts.
“Climate disruption was an amplifier and multiplier of the political crisis that was building up in Syria,” as Staffan de Mistura, U.N. special envoy for Syria between 2014 and 2018, told international German broadcaster DW in 2021.
War is not the only way climate change could kill residents in the Middle East. Thousands of migrant workers, like those who built the World Cup stadiums, have died from dangerous working conditions exacerbated by extreme heat.
And soon it may be too hot to survive even for those who don’t do outdoor manual labor. The “wet bulb” temperature is the one at which water evaporates, and it rises with both heat and humidity. If the temperature is 109°F with 60% humidity, for example, the wet bulb temperature is 95.86°F. A wet bulb temperature of 95°F is the threshold for human survival. Above that, and without air conditioning, humans will die because their sweat will not evaporate, and they cannot cool themselves even by staying inactive in the shade and drinking water.
This once theoretical risk is becoming more real with climate change. Much of the more heavily populated coastal areas in the Middle East — like Qatar, which sticks off the Arabian Peninsula like a thumb — are actually humid.
“The Persian Gulf is one of the few places in the world ever to record a wet bulb temperature that exceeds the threshold of human survivability, 35°C,” according to CNN. “Since 2005, there have been nine separate occasions of this on record.”
Modeling from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has projected that if greenhouse gas emissions do not decrease, cities such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha would exceed wet bulb temperatures of 35°C several times per year by 2100.
Daily high temperatures in Doha exceed 100°F from May to September. The 2022 World Cup was moved from its usual summer schedule to late fall, but anticipating temperatures upwards of 80°F with high humidity led the Qatari government to construct stadiums with air conditioning — largely powered by solar energy — so soccer could be played and watched more comfortably.
Other very hot countries — like most of sub-Saharan Africa — are often very small contributors to climate change, but many wealthy Middle Eastern nations are among the world’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide per capita, partly due to the emissions from oil and gas production. Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait are the three highest per capita emitters in the world, and the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Oman are also in the top 10.
With ready access to oil and gas, Middle Eastern nations haven’t had as much incentive to decarbonize their economies as other large emitters such as the United States and Europe. With 400 million residents, the Middle East now collectively emits more CO2 than the European Union, or the 1.4 billion residents of India.
“In the EU, we are seeing a declining trend of emissions, but this is not the case for the Middle East,” Georgios Zittis, one of the authors of the Review of Geophysics article, told the Washington Post.
Meanwhile, in poorer places such as Iraq, Gaza and Lebanon, electricity cannot be delivered for more than a few hours per day, making round-the-clock air conditioning impossible for anyone except those wealthy enough to own a private generator.
How those countries will cope with climate change — and how bad it will get, depending on the trajectory of emissions — is not yet known. But scientists do know that climate change is the reason for these hotter conditions.
“As you get closer to the equator, the general weather environment in these areas tends to be very stable,” Pershing of Climate Central explained. “In the Middle East, every day tends to be sunny and hot. It doesn’t swing as much as it does in the United States. It’s just much easier to detect the warming signal, and so we can more confidently say that the temperatures they’re encountering in Qatar right now, you’re much more likely to be encountering these temperatures in today’s climate than in one where humans hadn’t put carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
“The whole Arabian Peninsula has a very strong sensitivity to climate change … you have a really narrow distribution of temperature and a fairly substantial shift. And so you really are just pushing the cities in that region into a new climate that really wouldn’t exist without climate change.”