In April 2016, some important oil-producing Middle Eastern countries, as the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Iran, were present among the representatives of more than 155 countries headed to the U.N. in New York to ratify the international climate accord negotiated during the Paris COP 21 (“UAE vows to make climate deal work”, The National UAE, April 23, 2016).
Less than a month later, from North America to Russia, places especially vulnerable to climate change are shaken by immense wildfires. Prominent among these extreme weather events, is the mega wildfire that devastates the region of Fort Mc Murray, in the Alberta state of Canada (Bryan Alary, “Fort Mc Murray blaze among “most extreme” of wild fires says researcher”, Phys.org, May 9, 2016). This humongous fire happens directly in the heartland of the world-famous tar sands exploitations, which have turned Canada into an oil product exporter (Andrew Nikiforuk, Tar sands: dirty oil and the future of a continent, 2010).
Alberta wildfire has triggered the emergency evacuation of Fort Mc Murray, which went with a de facto weakening of the tar sands’ production. The fire has endangered the people as well as the industrial installations and the numerous related investments that went with it. Meanwhile, future insurance costs could sharply increase. (Maria Galucci, “Fort Mc Murray wildfires: Canada’s oil sands producers cut output as Alberta fires rage”, International Business Time, O5/04/16). In other words, these extreme weather events are demonstrating how much environmental global change is putting at risk modern societies, economies and business models.
This means governments, countries, and companies are jeopardised by climate change, and that this new geophysical threat must also be understood through the multiple ways it harms countries, civil societies and businesses.
Furthermore, this new global and systemic risk must be rethought, through the perspective of a strategic thinking that integrates the new meaning of what The Red (Team) Analysis Society, calls the “global change risk”, i.e. a risk grounded in the interactions between the modern societies complex vulnerabilities and rapidly changing and dangerous geophysics, such as, among others, climate change” (for a definition of global change, see U.S. Global Change Research Program).
In order to understand this new dimension of systemic vulnerability, we shall use the new kind of risks that the Alberta’s wildfire reveals. It will explain how, today, the new process that underlies these risks’ dynamics are not only threatening Canada, but also affects very different – and sometimes far away – places in the world.
To illustrate this new reality, we shall focus here on the way a small and very developed country such as the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), which has been able to transform itself into an influent power, is potentially today in a situation very similar to what Fort Mc Murray is facing.
First, we shall point out that Alberta wildfire reveals much more on the nature of risk than “simply” the combustion of a large swath of territory. Then we shall move to the way the new understanding of the “global change” risk impacts also a place like the United Arab Emirates, even though it is very far away of and very different from Canada. Finally, we shall stress that the new reality necessitates an awareness of the political, economic and business authorities of the United Arab Emirates about the complexification of risk. Indeed that threat affects the U.A.E national structures as well as the structures of the entire region in which the U.A.E. develops.
When anticipating the cumulative effects of global change, it is important to study cases that are exemplary of the high level of interconnectedness defining our globalised world, while also looking at the interactions with the new geophysical reality.
In this, the U.A.E. are of a particular interest and importance.
A new meaning of “Risk”: “Global Change Risk”
Despite the spectacular aspect of Alberta wildfire, one needs to understand that it is nothing but a symptom of the emerging new dimension of risk – “the global change risk” – expressing the interactions between potential hazards and assets, values or objectives.
Those wildfires, which happen not only in Alberta, but also in British Columbia, in California, and in Russia, in the middle of spring, are revealing a deeper reality than the “simple” risk of exposition to fire (Doyle Rice, “Wildfires charring US at near-record pace“, USA Today, April 18, 2016, and “Wildfires rage in Siberia and Russian Far east”, The Siberian Times, 11 May 2016).
The singularity of Alberta wildfire is defined by its overall geophysical conditions, dominated by the fact that the fire comes after a relatively dry and mild winter, in a country known for the harshness of its cold and snowy winters (Michael Ganley, “Is Alberta heading for another drought?”, Alberta Venture, May 2, 2016).
Alberta, as well as the whole American Middle West, is also suffering from the 2015 drought, which severity seems tied to the intensity of this year El Nino event, itself made more powerful than usual by the intensifying global climate change (Tatiana Schlossberg, “2016 Already shows record global temperatures”, The New York Times, April 19, 2016).
Wildfires, even gigantic ones, are not putting natural ecosystems at risk. In effect, the fire can be an immediate danger for the land’s animal and vegetal populations, but it can then boost a sequence of biological regrowth, which can be very healthy for the ecosystem (“Ecological consequences of fire / Yellowstone”, US National Park Service).
If this mega fire becomes an international factor of risk, it is because it threatens physically the industrial exploitation of the Canadian tar sands and thus the international energy market. The wildfire threatens industrial exploitations, which attracted more than 201bn dollars for their development between 1999 and 2013 (Alberta Energy, facts and statistics).
Meanwhile, the tar sands industry had already been fragilised by other factors. Given the fact that tar sands need a lot of energy to be turned into sellable oil products, their exploitation has been greatly impacted by the way the OPEC, Russia and other producers have forced the prices down, from 115 dollars in July 2014 a barrel to more or less 42 dollars nowadays, making tar sands products much less profitable (Ed Crooks, “Investment in Canadian oil and gas to be further slashed”, Financial Times, January 25, 2016 and Jean-Michel Valantin, “Oil Flood (2)- Oil and Politics in a (real) Multipolar World”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, January 12, 2015).
Thus, for the Canadian energy industry, the wildfire, an instance of extreme weather events generated by global climate change, becomes a gigantic danger that “hybridates” the combustion of the ecosystem with pressure stemming from the tensions on the international oil market. This is an example of a “global change risk” at work.
So, what the Fort Mc Murray mega fire reveals is that the current environmental global change triggers an unexpected interaction, not to say collision, between the human, social, infrastructural, energy production and business world, on the one hand, and, on the other, the changing geophysics. Furthermore, in the meantime, the fire’s extension towards the North may heat up large swaths of permafrost, thus supporting the release of land methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, which aggravates climate change (Aviva Rutkin, “Canada’s huge wildfires may release carbon locked in permafrost”, New Scientist, 6 May 2016).
The Alberta wildfire’s example shows the emergence of a new risk created by the hybridation of the environmental global change with the current industrial and business models. This risk does not translate only into a single danger, but also deeply jeopardises these models structurally.
Many scientists qualify this planetary transformation as being the signal of a new geological era: the Anthropocene, so-called because of the new status of humankind, which has become the prevalent geological force on the planet (Jan Zalasiewicz, Anthropocene: a new epoch of geological time?, 2011).
However, paradoxically, this means that the very life conditions out of which the human species emerged, and developed the political, social and economic conditions necessary for human survival are now being rapidly modified. And these conditions will keep on, and on changing during the decades and the centuries to come (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Planetary Crisis Rules (1)”, The Red Team Analysis Society, January 25, 2016).
Alberta mega fire expresses the anthropocene threat: the combination of our alteration of our environment through the exploitation of fossil fuels and resources and, because of this very alteration, our resulting inadaptability – and the inadaptability of our models – for survival and development. (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Planetary Crisis Rules (Part 1)”, The Red Team Analysis Society, January 25, 2016).
“Global change risk” is the result of the interaction between “hybridation” and the anthropocene threat, both reinforcing each other and combining in an ongoing way.
This is why the meaning of what risk entails knows a very deep evolution nowadays, because very different countries as Canada and the United Arab Emirates are put in a state of risk by the emergence of the Anthropocene era.
The U.A.E. and the anticipation of the climate and resources crisis
The U.A.E is certainly one of the countries where the political, economic and business awareness of the complex risks implied by the current planetary crisis is the most rapidly developing. However, the U.A.E. is meeting the same human-planetary hybrid structure of Anthropocene risks as Fort Mc Murray, meaning that the development of the Emirates is confronted to its adaptation to the Anthropocene., and, as such, to changing environmental conditions, which are different from those in which modern societies have so far developed.
This implies that there is a growing inadequacy between the rapidly changing planetary conditions and the modern forms of development.
The U.A.E. is an important oil and gas exporter, and has used its energy revenues to foster its social and economic development (The CIA World Factbook- United Arab Emirates). This has insured a high level of social and infrastructural development, wealth and political cohesion. This political cohesion is of paramount importance, because it confers political, social and military robustness to the U.A.E., given its geopolitical location.
The U.A.E. is installed at the extremity of the Arabian Peninsula, between Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf and Iran, and Oman, and is spatially close to Qatar, and Bahrain, and, further away, to Kuwait and Iraq to the north, Yemen to the south, while the US military is highly present (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Energy Geopolitics and Climate Politics, A Complicated relationship”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 30 November 2015).
The state of war, and the political, strategic, economic and religious tensions known by many of these countries, to a degree or another, put the Persian Gulf under a lot of political and military pressure, while everyday 17 millions of barrels of oil leave by the Strait of Hormuz and sail through the Gulf (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Persian Gulf, Between power and Collapse”, The Red Team Analysis Society, 9 December 2013).
In this extremely charged geopolitical and economic context, the U.A.E. has devised a very original developmental model, based on oil and gas on the one hand, mainly in Abu Dhabi, and, on the other, real estate, international business and tourism, mostly in Dubai (CIA Factbook, ibid), despite a harsh natural arid environment.
In answer to the Anthropocene challenge, the U.A.E. authorities seem to be taking very seriously the way of thinking that started emerging with The Club of Rome’s famous report “The Limits to Growth”. That report, commissioned to a team of scientists of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Dennis and Donnella Meadows, Jørgen Randers, William W. Behrens III, The Limits to Growth, the 30-Year-Update, 2004) opened the way to allow us questioning the current state of the relationship between humankind and our planet.
Published in 1972 and regularly updated since then, the report (Ibid.) shows how the developing discrepancy between economic and demographic growth on the one hand, and, on the other, the extractable natural resources and the geophysical capability of absorbing pollution was condemning the modern developmental model to fail sometime around 2030, when demographic and economic growth would meet the limits of the carrying capacity of our planet.
In order to be able to keep on developing themselves in an era when the limits of oil reserves are appearing, the U.A.E. has been willing to host the International Renewable Energies Agency (IRENA-Facebook), and went so far as to finance the experimental eco-city of Masdar. This new city is a pilot-project, built from scratch in the desert, which should be carbon and pollution free through the converging use of traditional desert buildings and of the most advanced technologies in renewable energy, especially solar power, smart grid, and intelligent water network, among other projects (Patrick Kingsley, “Masdar: the shifting goalposts of Abu Dhabi’s ambitious eco-city”, WIRED.CO.UK, 17 December 2013).
Masdar and IRENA are strategic political and industrial projects for an adaptation of the U.A.E. to the (near) future of the energy and natural resources markets, and to the emergence of an international market of eco-technologies, which will increasingly be in demand worldwide, as climate change and world depletion of natural resources worsen (James Howard Kunstler, The Long emergency, 2005 and Michael Klare, Rising powers, shrinking planet, 2008, and The Race for What’s Left, 2012).
This strategic project could be the mean to turn the U.A.E. into an international industrial actor of the third industrial revolution defined by Jeremy Rifkin (Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution, How lateral thinking is transforming energy, the economy and the world, 2011).
According to Rifkin, this new cycle of the industrial economy must be based on the convergence of smart technologies with the global need of addressing the twin challenges of climate change and resource depletion (Ibid.). It is meant to maintain industrial, national, and international economics alive through the emergence of a sustainable industrial model.
Thus, the U.A.E.’s investment in the most advanced energetic and industrial forms of sustainable development could insure a mammoth comparative advantage to the Emirates in the decades to come, while globalisation is taken into “the limits of growth”.
Global Change Risk on the U.A.E.’s development
However, the U.A.E. is located in a region particularly hammered by the different and converging dimensions of the Anthropocene. In effect, rising atmospheric temperatures affect the whole Middle East, which is already an arid and semi-arid region. The climatic perspective is dire, because, in the years and decades to come, climate change is certainly going to keep on increasing, making the whole region less and less sustainable and livable (Damian Carrington, “Extreme Heat waves could push Gulf climate beyond human endurance, study shows”, The Guardian, 26 October 2016).
Climate change is even more dangerous for the U.A.E. because its geography puts it at the level of the sea, and, as we have seen in “Antarctic versus Dubai”, the level of the ocean is rising higher and quicker than it was anticipated only five years ago.
The possible rise of the sea of 2 to 5 meters between now and 2100 is a potential cataclysm for the Emirates (Eric Holtaus, “James Hansen Bombshell’s climate warning is now part of the Scientific canon”, Slate.com, March 22, 2016), starting with the violent loss of real estate value, which will hamper their corporate, infrastructural, and social development and economy, followed by the water treatment issue, and by the problem of submersion of large tracts of the territory (Vesela Tedorova, “Abu Dhabi 2100: under water?”, The National UAE, January 15, 2010).
In the same time, the Emirates will have to face the geopolitical and strategic pressures resulting from the Anthropocene on their food security, and on the growing tensions in the Middle East. For example, as it happens, Abu Dhabi imports agricultural products from Alberta (“United Arab Emirates – Alberta Agriculture Highlights”, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, January 2015). Thus, if Canada’s and other producers’ agricultural production are hampered by the coming multiplication of extreme weather event – as current Alberta’s wildfire – the Emirates will be facing a dangerous food security situation.
In effect, one must remember that their neighbours or near-neighbours, mainly Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, will be in a similar situation and, as every nation, will compete for food, knowing that modern societies are very sensitive to fluctuations on the international food markets. This will be a particularly sensitive issue because rising temperatures will make even more difficult to maintain the agriculture that exists (Paul Mc Mahon, Feeding Frenzy: the new politics of food, 2014). We have here an instance of “hybridation”.
Meanwhile, it will have to be seen if the Persian Gulf remains the most important centre of production and exportation of oil and gas in the world as it is today. This implies that the economies and businesses of the region are deeply sensitive to the numerous crises that affect the world energy market and to the related strategic tensions.
All these issues happen together and will converge simultaneously during the years and decades to come, as The Red (Team) Analysis Society has been explaining over the last years.
Building upon the foresight of Masdar and IRENA, the U.A.E. will need to go much further in the way it adapts to the Anthropocene, in order to project itself successfully through the complicated years ahead.
That is what The Red (Team) Analysis Society is for.
Let’s actively adapt and change the game.
About the author: Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) is the Director of Environment and Security Analysis at The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defence sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.
Featured image: 後石油城市：城市未來的歷史 – 展出計畫選圖 02, Masdar Aerial View, Forgemind ArchiMedia, 20 May 2015, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).