“Believe it or not, this is an optimistic book,” Prof. Dan Rabinowitz says with a smile. He’s holding up a virtual copy of his newest book, released this month by Stanford University Press. But how a book on climate change and Middle East oil barons called “The Power of Deserts” could possibly be optimistic is a story unto itself.
Rabinowitz’s smile can at least partly be chalked up to serendipity — the former head of the Tel Aviv University (TAU) Porter School of Environmental Studies has been working on the book for nearly three years without any idea that, on the eve of its publication, normalization would emerge between Israel and one of the central figures in the book — the United Arab Emirates.
In presenting the formalization of ties to the Israeli public, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed future joint endeavors between Israel and the UAE, including environmental initiatives. Many wondered what sort of joint environmental endeavors might be on the agenda — after all, the UAE is one of the world’s primary oil producers.
Yet if Rabinowitz’s optimistic vision becomes reality, the common denominator in the new Middle East will be still energy, but from a renewable source — the sun.
The 66-year-old Rabinowitz has been a central figure in Israeli global warming discourse for more than two decades. He has served as the chairman of the Israeli environmental umbrella group Life and Environment; the chairman of Greenpeace Mediterranean; and, among other roles, headed the Porter School.
These days he teaches in TAU’s Sociology and Anthropology Department and next year, in October 2021, he plans to launch an international MA program in climate, society, and policy to be taught in English, via Zoom, to students from all over the world.
But beyond all of the formal titles and positions, Rabinowitz is an expert at speaking unpretentiously about climate and science. A decade ago, he published a book with the somewhat fearsome title “Here it Comes,” in which he laid out the ways that the climate crisis would affect the daily lives of Israelis, as well as their national economy and security. Some of his forecasts have become reality rather sooner than expected.
The current book’s format seems tailor-made for Rabinowitz. Stanford Briefs, an imprint of Stanford University Press, publishes essay-length works, free of the requirements of scholarly journals and written in accessible English — what’s known as popular science — but “without yielding an inch on factual precision and scientific sourcing,” says Rabinowitz.
“They sat on top of me, requiring dozens of footnotes, links and references. The text is only 125 pages long, but there are 50 more pages [of reference material],” he tells The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site, Zman Yisrael.
The book deals with the GCC, the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, which is made up of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. Together the six countries — all among the top 20 oil producers in the world — churn out roughly a third of the world’s oil. The revenue from that oil accounts for some 90 percent of state income and provides those countries with some of the highest per capita GDPs in the world. In the UAE, for example, the per capita GDP is $70,000, which is the seventh-highest globally.
But these countries, aside from playing a significant role in the global climate crisis, are also suffering from the shift quite severely. This is particularly noticeable on the days when afternoon temperatures soar over 50 degrees centigrade, or a whopping 122 degrees Fahrenheit.
As we speak, Rabinowitz takes a napkin from the café table and traces the contours of the Gulf’s heat trap. The Oman Mountains — a range that rises to over 3,000 meters, or 9,842 feet — trap the cool air off the Indian Ocean and keeps the inland desert scorching hot. The Gulf remains a giant body of water that evaporates in the heat and contributes to the nearly unfathomable levels of humidity.
In the book’s first chapter, Rabinowitz sums up the forecasts and climate models for the region in the coming years and decades. Spoiler: It will be very hot and very little fun.
In Kuwait City for example, the mid-August temperature is expected to rise by 7 degrees Celsius (or 12.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in the next 50 years. Considering that the average daily high for August is currently 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 Fahrenheit ), wandering around outside will be virtually impossible.
That sounds scary. But in the eyes of a Gulf resident isn’t that just more of the same? They already live within air-conditioned spaces built courtesy of the oil money, so why not just carry on?
“It’s true that money can help you do a lot, but only to a point,” Rabinowitz says. “Life also consists of people who need to pave roads, manage warehouses, and work outdoors.”
The book also addresses the disparity among nations’ abilities to survive in the face of the climate crisis. “The unjust and inequitable reality is that the states that have done the most to contribute to climate change are also those that have the best tools to address the repercussions of it,” he says. “So it is the world over.”
“Rich Saudi Arabia, which has thwarted international climate conventions time and again, is with its own hands sealing the fate of its poor neighbor, Yemen. The United States is massively contributing to global warming and its neighbor, Mexico, will pay the price, and so forth,” he asserts.
“But even the rich states realize, or ought to realize, that in the end the repercussions will reach them all. In the United Arab Emirates, there are 1 million citizens and 9 million foreigners working for them. At a certain temperature, they will no longer be able to work.”
A bubble of luxury and excess
As a scholar who comes at this issue from the social sciences — sociology and anthropology — the global inequity and injustice of the climate crisis is particularly gripping for Rabinowitz.
“The gaps in the Middle East are the largest in the world,” he says. “Your average Kuwaiti emits 55 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Your average Israeli emits 9.5 tons, down from 11 since the switch to natural gas. Your average Sudani emits 300 kilograms, but he of course is the one who will pay the price — and has been paying it — in the form of drought, hunger, regime instability, and forced immigration.”
Within this framework, the UAE stands out as an especially insulated bubble of luxury and excess.
“In 1968 there were 1,000 private cars in the Emirates and the first road was paved,” Rabinowitz notes. “Today there are more than 1,000 private planes. The significance of that is that several thousand people are responsible for an enormous amount of greenhouse gas emissions.”
“Or for example take the Ski Dubai indoor resort,” he says. “With outside temperatures at 45 degrees [Celsius, 113 degrees Fahrenheit], the ice surface needs to be kept at -16 degrees [3.2 F] and the air within the ski resort has to be kept at -1 degree [30 F]. The amount of electricity needed to keep that endeavor running is roughly half a million barrels of oil annually, which is equivalent to the oil consumption of 2 million Sudani citizens over the course of a year.”
Only this is a party that’s going to end, and not solely on account of the ever-more extreme climate. The darkening cloud over the heads of the oil powerhouses is the collapse of demand and the price of fossil fuels. Solar energy is now the name of the game all over the world — or as Udi Adiri, the director-general of the Israeli Ministry of Energy, put it recently: “The train has already left the station.”
This was once the domain of environmentalists. Today it’s simply a matter of dollars and cents.
“In the year 2000, it cost $350 to produce a single megawatt of electricity from the sun,” Rabinowitz says. “Today it costs $20. With natural gas and oil it costs between $40 and $60. That’s why the prices of gas and oil keep plummeting.”
Rabinowitz says that the pandemic era brought the worst blow to gas and oil prices to date. As demand dropped, the bottom fell out of the oil prices — and as soon as that happened, it was no longer profitable to continue producing oil and many fields were shut.
In theory, he says, demand — and prices — should have risen once lockdown measures were relaxed and closures lifted. This didn’t happen, though, he says, because not all of the fields reopened, revealing the vulnerability of the fossil fuel supply chain, its lack of flexibility, and its low profit margin.
“Looking ahead, the big story is the electrification of transportation — 50% of oil demand today is for transportation,” Rabinowiz says. “All over the world it’s clear that, in a few years, cars will run on electricity. Look at what’s happening to Tesla stock. [Israeli Energy Minister] Yuval Steinitz announced that by 2030 Israel would cease the import of gas-run vehicles.”
The Times of Israel: In this scenario, the Gulf states are headed toward collapse.
Rabinowitz: Every crisis can also turn into an opportunity. The state of the oil princedoms reminds me of William Durant, who was an American millionaire who made his fortune from producing horse-drawn carriages.
When the first automobiles were put out, he launched an aggressive campaign against cars, asserting that they were polluting, noisy, and dangerous. He even forbade his daughter from riding in one. In 1903 he realized that the struggle was useless, that the car was here to stay, and he bought an automobile manufacturing plant in Flint, Michigan, called Buick. Later he partnered up with a man named Louis Chevrolet and the rest is history.
Drawing a parallel, what you’re saying is that if the Gulf states want to survive, they must transform the region from a giant oil well to the world’s largest solar well.
Exactly. And they have all the tools to do it. We’re talking about the region with the most sun in the world — 300 days of sunshine a year, large swaths of desert, tons of space for giant solar panel fields. No shortage of space, no shortage of startup money.
We’re talking about countries that are not characterized by innovation but have proven capable of spotting others’ emerging technologies and innovations and integrating them. They have a series of hyper-modern mega-cities, smart cities, that could rather easily be transferred to working on innovative, solar-based systems. Currently, only 3.5% of the energy used in the UAE comes from the sun. That’s a laughable figure, far less than in Israel.
It’s true that the population of the Gulf states spends a lot, but at the end of the day it’s a small population. If several dozen million people switch to solar energy, that’s not the sort of game-changer that will shift the climate trend.
True, and that brings us to the last stage. Once they’ve made the move and transferred to solar, they’ll invest in advanced technologies and will start making money off them, at which point they will have to collapse the oil industry, shut down some of the wells, and drastically raise the prices.
What you’re saying is that the oil producers who polluted the world can now save it.
What I’m saying is that 200 conservative Arab men could save the world. And to be more specific, one man — Muhammad Bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi — could do it.
Up until today we took the route of Al Gore and Greta Thunberg, raising awareness among the general public and creating grassroots pressure on the decision makers — that didn’t really work. Maybe through him it will work. Did I tell you yet that this is an optimistic book?
This article has been adapted from the original Hebrew on Zman Yisrael, the sister site of The Times of Israel.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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