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The Middle East Heats Up

Does the world really need more headaches in the Middle East? No, of course not, but rising global temperatures are likely to create a few more regardless. According to a new report from the Institute for Sustainable Development, the Levant is currently on pace to get hotter and drier in the next four decades, and climate change threatens to "reduce the availability of scarce water resources, increase food insecurity, hinder economic growth, and lead to large-scale population movements" in the area that spans Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. An area, mind you, where, "in many places, demand for water already outstrips supply."

One striking example from the report: Due to a severe drought in 2008, some 160 rural villages in northeast Syria have already been completely abandoned, their inhabitants fleeing to urban areas. The report blames climate change, but I'd be a tad more precise. It's hard to say that this specific drought was caused by man-made global warming—what we do know is that climate change will make severe droughts far more likely.

Other examples: Even moderate temperature increases could shrink the Euphrates River 30 percent and the Jordan River 80 percent by the end of the century. This, the study warns, could "make some existing peace agreements untenable, could complicate the negotiation of new peace agreements, and could be a factor in national instability." Even Israel, which is better-equipped to cope with new resource pressures than its neighbors, won't escape unscathed: The country's agricultural revenues alone are likely to plunge 10 percent by 2050 as a result of climate change.

In any case, global warming isn't the sole environmental problem facing the Middle East—the report notes that surging population growth in the Levant (from 42 million people in 2008 to 71 million in 2050) would put excessive strain on water resources even if the planet weren't heating up. And even if the nations of the world do get together and agree to restrain their greenhouse-gas emissions, adaptation measures will still prove essential. It's just that rising temperatures threaten to make all these looming strains far, far more unmanageable. Little mystery why military experts increasingly consider climate change a pressing national-security threat.

(Flickr photo credit: Jim Shannon)

--Bradford Plumer