Heat waves, flooding and droughts are just some among the critical and life-threatening consequences. But despite how directly climate change continues to impact the region, there is little mainstream Arabic news reporting on it. Local media is likely to cover natural disasters as and when they happen but rarely does it inform the public on how much of a key player climate change is becoming in their lives. As a result, there is little awareness amongst the general public in the region on one of the most defining issues of their lifetimes.
Temperature records continue to break in the region with Basra, Iraq, recording 53.9°C in 2016, the highest recorded temperature in the region to date. That summer also saw 54°C in Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, UAE, reaching its record high of 50.4°C the following year. In 2019, a man died from a heatstroke when temperatures in the country reached 52.2 °C. The heatwave also struck other parts of the Gulf region with temperatures in Al Majmaah, Saudi Arabia, rising to 55°C at noon. The rising temperatures aren’t limited to the wealthy Gulf states - where, arguably most of the population lives in advanced urban centers with better access to constant air conditioning. In northern Sudan, death tolls from heatwaves in 2015 amounted to 16 deaths. And experts emphasize that it is not just the extent by how much atmospheric temperatures rise that is a cause for concern but also the increasingly longer duration of the very hot days - the rate of heat related deaths increases exponentially with longer duration of high temperatures. Studies show that heat-related deaths were most prone to occur on days with a peak daily temperature greater than 38°C, and the incidence of these deaths showed an exponential dependence on the number of hot days.
Furthermore, rising sea levels and flooding have increased across the region - resulting in damage to infrastructure that has, at times, resulted in fatalities as well as forcing communities to relocate/migrate. Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, has been experiencing annual flooding and increasingly strong storms as have Oman and Yemen during the last few decades in an unprecedented way This confirms a 2016 report by the World Bank, which states that the MENA region is among the most vulnerable places on earth in particular in relation to rising sea levels. The report warns that low-lying coastal areas in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE will particularly be at risk by the end of the century.
On the other end of the spectrum, Jordan’s Dead Sea continues to shrink due to lower rainfall and higher temperatures which many experts worry will have catastrophic effects on the security of the Levant, a region that is already living through multiple conflicts. But despite the ongoing consequences that climate change is bringing to the region, public discourses in the MENA region do not seem to recognize the urgency of the issue in comparison to the growth in awareness on the issue that has taken place in many other parts of the world in recent times.
Decades-long social and political issues and regional conflicts are likely an important factor in why climate change continues to get pushed down on the agenda, both, amongst the public and on a policy-level. This is despite the factor that it increases the risk of conflict, worsens water scarcity, increases food insecurity, exacerbates migration and forced dislocation increases diseases, and decreases life quality in every country in the world.
Yet another reason for the relatively lower climate awareness is the approach of the media, region-wide, on how to report on the issue. Even though climate change is covered in the regional media - now more than it was a few years ago - the reporting lacks the nuance and relevance to effectively convey the urgency of the crisis.
Some locally-based English publications, particularly Al Jazzera English, do cover climate from a local context from time-to-time but they a significant proportion of their readership is either diaspora or western audience interested in the region. Other climate news platforms, such as Climate Tracker, also have a small but focused hub covering the region but their audience is also primarily readers who are already invested in keeping up with climate related news.
But for the general public that gets its news from local, mainstream platforms - such as Arabic newspapers, or broadcast news channels, or the social media handles of local websites they follow - and aren’t particularly making an effort to seek news about climate change, there is little that their current news consumptions patterns provide.
A significant part of the problem is, of course, due to the strict limit on media freedom across the region but especially in the oil-rich Gulf states. Local media in the Gulf states has also been normalizing conversations on ‘sustainability’ but the emphasis is still limited to just highlighting local individual or community-led actions, such as on reducing food waste or encouraging recycling, and do little more than amplify policies and goals established by the governments to address these issues.
This is because there is a clear correlation between how the lack of authoritarianism (and, hence, the level of freedom for the press) and the quality of reporting that can come from those countries even on issues that are directly not calling for dissent. Given the authoritarian style of governing in most Gulf countries as well as how important the oil industry has been for their advancement, it is hardly surprising that climate related reporting has always avoided shedding light on regional stories on the issue. Other countries in the region, where the press has relatively more freedom, have seen the mainstream media share, on occasion, a more detailed and relevant view on climate policies and action but for the most part, the discourse lacks the significance and publicity it requires. The specific problems with this kind of coverage are that they are generic, mirror global not local perspectives and usually just echo what international news agencies state. To give one example, while local publications/media in the region will now cover events like the international climate march, the reporting will lack the detailed discourse, background and impact that is relevant to the region. It is unreasonable to expect people to engage with a topic like climate change which, even on a very surface level requires a basic scientific understanding and one that many individuals might not already have, unless they are being informed by the media in the first place on its urgency and the impact it can have on the world and them as individuals.
Furthermore, a combination of factors such as the minimal trust in the media, the inability of publications/media to effectively reach a wide enough audience, and the lack of local, region-specific reporting continues to push people to turn towards questionable sources of information (such as unverified WhatsApp forwards, Twitter threads, or YouTube personalities).
What is the solution to better coverage of the climate crisis?
The restrictions on media in the region cannot be discounted in their impact on how stories are covered but there are still multiple ways local media can push the conversation without even having to challenge the current narrative (or lack of one). In some ways, the COVID-19 crisis has produced a lot of lessons for the media in the MENA region on how to improve reporting on the climate crisis. The general public now recognizes the possibility of an unforeseen threat, uncertainties, and risks disrupting their current lifestyle and are thus eager to better understand the said threat, from a technical and scientific point of view.
If applied to climate change coverage, it would improve current coverage and helpful and valid information can be spread. If MENA-based media publications use the ongoing circumstances as a lesson on how to improve its reporting on climate change, they just might be able to start steering the public discourse on the issue towards a more productive direction. Half the work is already laid out for them - the youth (who happen to make up around half of the population of the region) already recognize the urgency of climate change and the importance of climate action. A major example is Fridays for future and the increasing rates of students in the region enrolling in programs related to renewable energy and climate change. The youth would almost certainly respond positively to a media that discusses the issue in ways that are relevant to them.
There are a number of journalists who have been reporting on climate-related problems from the region in recent years and it is time the media landscape validates the importance of what they report on and fosters a culture that recognizes that discourses on climate change must be prioritized on the agenda of what is important and urgent. Policies will only change if people demand they do and, right now, the media is failing to properly educate and inform its readership on what is going to be the defining issue for the generations to com