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Is Global Warming Responsible for the 'Arab Spring'?

In a groundbreaking article titled “The Other Arab Spring” published in the New York Times on April 8, 2012, bestselling author Thomas Friedman set forth a new and remarkable explanation for violent unrest in the Arab world: global warming.

“Isn’t it interesting that the Arab awakening began in Tunisia with a fruit vendor who was harassed by police for not having a permit to sell food,” the sage writes, “just at the moment when food prices hit record highs? And that it began in Syria with farmers in the southern village of Dara’a, who were demanding the right to buy and sell land near the border, without having to get permission from corrupt security officials? And that it was spurred on in Yemen -- the first country in the world expected to run out of water -- by a list of grievances against an incompetent government, among the biggest of which was that top government officials were digging water wells in their backyards at a time when the government was supposed to be preventing such water wildcatting?


All these tensions over land, water, and food are telling us something: The Arab awakening was driven not only by political and economic stresses, but less visibly, by environmental, population, and climate stresses as well.


[W]e should all remember that quote attributed to Leon Trotsky: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’ Well, you may not be interested in climate change, but climate change is interested in you.


We and the Arabs need to figure out -- and fast -- more ways to partner to mitigate the environmental threats.


Twenty years from now, this could be all that we’re talking about.

Now a candid reader might be excused for viewing Friedman’s examples of ordinary Arabs becoming enraged by police harassment or corrupt officials as evidence of a problem with Middle Eastern governance, rather than climate. Furthermore, to the extent they involve climate change at all, the cases of wells running dry cited above and elsewhere in Friedman’s article would be better taken as evidence of global cooling rather than global warming, since a warming planet would experience more net rainfall, rather than less. This could make Friedman’s case appear absurd.

But Thomas Friedman is a national asset, being one of the few genuine experts on everything available to the media, and it would be a shame for him to be publicly humiliated simply as a result of an inadvertent omission of such evidence as might serve to adequately defend his thesis. Indeed, in law, it is the obligation of every prosecutor to make available to the defense all evidence that might exonerate their client, regardless of how vile he may be, and that being the case, such courtesy must necessarily extend to Friedman as well.  Therefore, in view of this excellent and charitable tradition, I took the liberty to assemble three top-notch witnesses to provide testimony on Mr. Friedman’s behalf.

My first witness was a leading political climatologist (PC). We met in his spacious office on the 9th floor of the new Albert Gore Institute for Political Climatology located at 300 E Street SW, Washington, D.C. I had been to these same offices before, when they housed the NASA administrator, and it was interesting to observe the change of décor. Instead of a mural depicting astronauts exploring Mars, there was now a beautifully rendered wall-sized painting of the Earth with its polar ice caps on fire. The text of our interview follows verbatim.

RZ: Sir, thank you for agreeing to discuss the Friedman thesis with me. Do you agree that global warming is the cause of the unrest we are seeing in the Arab world today?

PC: Yes, certainly. The geopolitical effects of global warming cannot be overstated.

RZ: So then what support can you provide to back up Mr. Friedman’s contention that the Arab Spring was caused by global warming?

PC: I think it is rather obvious. The Arab Spring occurred during the spring, precisely the time of year when the Northern hemisphere, within which all Arab nations, without exception, are located, warms most rapidly. Let the deniers try to contradict that. The case is closed.

RZ: But spring has occurred every year, for all of recorded history. Why would it set off revolutions in 2011, but not before?

PC: Again, the answer is clear. Spring does occur every year, and the Arab masses were able to bear it scores, even hundreds of times. Indeed, it speaks volumes for their patience and moderation that they were able to endure so many repetitions of this harsh phenomenon without any response. But one cannot expect even the most stoic of peoples to forbear answering such insults forever. The warm front that moved in during the spring of 2011 was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.

RZ: Insults?

PC: Yes. In addition to being objectively harmful, global warming is particularly distressing to the Arab peoples because it reminds them of the Crusades, which occurred at a time when the Earth’s climate was significantly warmer than it is today.  By the way, I hope you will not mention the latter fact to members of the ignorant public, as it might serve to dissipate their willingness to support strong measures to counter global warming.

RZ: Of course. [Dear readers: Please respect PC’s request and do not spread knowledge of the Medieval warm period, when global temperatures were about 2 degrees centigrade warmer than today.]

PC: And of course the original great Islamic conquests took place during the cold period that followed the fall of the Roman Empire, the time we call the Dark Ages. So naturally they remember cold climates fondly. But shortly after the Muslims arrived, the fertile farmlands of North Africa, which had served as a breadbasket for the Roman Empire, all turned into blazing desert. So I’m sure you can see how upset they must be at the prospect of global warming.

RZ: But I thought you said that occurred during a period of global cooling.

PC: Please don’t confuse the issue. Deserts are hot. Deserts are bad. Therefore hot is bad. That’s all people need to know. Yes, it is true that global cooling decreases rainfall. But if you let people know that, they will come to the conclusion that global warming is good, which completely undermines the entire purpose of the exercise. We’re not trying to get people to feel good. We’re trying to get them to take action.

RZ: I see.

PC: In any case, the desertification of North Africa can easily be accounted for by political climatology, simply by observing that while the actual global temperature may have been quite low during the period of the Islamic conquests, its rate of change, that is to say its first derivative, was strongly positive.  In fact, in nearly all cases, a strong correlation between desertification and either global temperature or its first or second derivatives can readily be found. This provides a much more useful explanation than such ad hoc theories as blaming the destruction of North African and Mesopotamian agriculture on the Arab conquerors, which, in addition to being politically incorrect, provide no useful information to underscore the imperative for climate action today.  But admittedly, discussions of first and second temperature derivatives may be a bit too cerebral for today’s lawmakers, so it’s best we keep things simple. Deserts are hot. Deserts are bad. Therefore activities that contribute to warming are bad and require constraint. Lay it out that way and you can’t miss.

RZ: I understand. Well, thank you for your time.