Will Lebanon Face its Immense Climate Change Dangers?

An eye-opening report on climate change effects in Lebanon reveals the need for government to commit to save tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars over the coming decades, and prevent a further fracturing of society along wealth/poverty lines.

I have been concerned in recent years about the declining quality of governance in Lebanon, which has reached a new low in the past six months in sectors that impact every household every day, like garbage collection, electricity, and water. But I took a giant leap forward last week in my concerns about the government’s capacity or willingness to govern.

This happened when I attended a panel discussion at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI) at the American University of Beirut (full disclosure: my employer for the past decade) on how climate change impacts could effect the economy of Lebanon in the near and distant future. What caught my attention at the panel of four Lebanese and international speakers, chaired by AUB’s Dr. Nadim Farajallah who has guided IFI’s work in this area since its inception, was an analysis of the economic costs of climate change between now and 2080.

I nearly fell out of my seat when I heard that already today the Lebanese economy loses about $800 million per year only in agricultural and food costs that can be traced to direct or indirect climate change-related causes. Total economic costs today are an estimated $2 billion per year. Also, an estimated 30,000 people die every year due to climate change-linked factors such as heat stress, disease, malnutrition, and others, based on studies for Lebanon and the wider Eastern Mediterranean region.

These and other striking findings come from a powerful new study by the Ministry of Environment and the United Nations Development Programme, entitled “Economic costs to Lebanon from climate change: A first look.” It thoroughly analyzed the total economic costs and dislocations across Lebanon that would result from climate change consequences, under scenarios of high, medium, and low greenhouse gasses emissions levels from 2020 to 2080.

Its projections show that countries like Lebanon will suffer immensely if governments and private sectors do not take speedy and sensible actions in the areas of mitigation and adaptation, to minimize the damage that is already happening, and to save millions of citizens from certain grief and hardships that will strike harder in the years ahead.

The striking thing about this report, which focuses on the economic costs of climate change, is the overview of how many aspects of life and society will be impacted negatively. These include increased costs everywhere and on everyone, population displacements as some areas become nearly uninhabitable or unable to support traditional agricultural life, violence, health problems, worker productivity, and others. Income and livelihood disparities would worsen and exacerbate social and economic polarization among wealthy and poor families.

The total potential annual costs of climate change direct damage impacts under the highest emissions scenario, the report says, would reach $2.8 billion a year by 2040 and a staggering $23 billion a year by 2080. The total cumulative costs of direct damage impacts and forgone economic growth potential would reach figures that are almost incomprehensible for a small state like Lebanon: $139 billion by 2080.

When I heard these facts I followed up by speaking to Dr. Ernie Niemi, an American economist who was asked by the Lebanese government to join the team doing this analysis. He told me that these projections should cause Lebanese to do three things: Do not deny the climate change impact realities that are already well documented; start reducing vulnerabilities in areas where that can be done; and enact policies that increase resilience in the economy, which would allow Lebanese state and private institutions to respond effectively and in time to anticipated dangers ahead.

“The longer people wait to adjust to the new realities, the more stress the ecosystem and economy will suffer, which could lead to poor decisions made in haste,” he suggested, “so it is important to start making good decisions as soon as possible.”

Studies like this one could become a catalyst that wakes up citizens and officials to the dangers ahead for them and their families. So when I asked the climate change and environment program coordinator at IFI-AUB, Rana el-Hajj, what she concludes from projects like these that she has participated in for years, her answer was as clear as the humming from my building’s electricity generator that provides us power a few times a day when the electricity from the government is shut off:

”The time to act on climate change is now, or humanity might just miss its last lifeline. The new climate agreement [reached in Paris last year] might prove to be the perfect incentive for Lebanon to adopt more sustainable policies.”

Whenever the government decides to discuss how to save tens of thousands of lives a year and hundreds of billions of dollars over the coming decades, and prevent a further fracturing of society along wealth/poverty lines, this report might be a good place to start that process.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter @RamiKhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global