What Happens When a Country Becomes Unlivable?

January 18, 2022

This BBC piece is one of the most moving studies of climate impacts and responses that I’ve seen in a long time. It focuses on Kuwait, but the message works anywhere. It’s getting bad, fast.


Global warming is smashing temperature records all over the world, but Kuwait — one of the hottest countries on the planet — is fast becoming unlivable. In 2016, thermometers hit 54 degrees Celsius (129 Fahrenheit), the highest reading on Earth in the last 76 years. Last year, for the first time, they breached 50°C in June, weeks ahead of usual peak weather. Parts of Kuwait could get as much as 4.5°C hotter from 2071 to 2100 compared with the historical average, according to the Environment Public Authority, making large areas of the country uninhabitable.

For wildlife, it almost is. Dead birds appear on rooftops in the brutal summer months, unable to find shade or water. Vets are inundated with stray cats, brought in by people who’ve found them near death from heat exhaustion and dehydration. Even wild foxes are abandoning a desert that no longer blooms after the rains for what small patches of green remain in the city, where they’re treated as pests.

“This is why we are seeing less and less wildlife in Kuwait, it’s because most of them aren’t making it through the seasons,” said Tamara Qabazard, a Kuwaiti zoo and wildlife veterinarian. “Last year, we had three to four days at the end of July that were incredibly humid and very hot, and it was hard to even walk outside your house, and there was no wind. A lot of the animals started having respiratory problems.”

Unlike countries from Bangladesh to Brazil that are struggling to balance environmental challenges with teeming populations and widespread poverty, Kuwait is OPEC’s number 4 oil-exporter. Home to the world’s third-largest sovereign wealth fund and just over 4.5 million people, it’s not a lack of resources that stands in the way of cutting greenhouse gases and adapting to a warmer planet, but rather political inaction.

Even Kuwait’s neighbors, also dependent on crude exports, have pledged to take stronger climate action. Saudi Arabia last year said it would target net-zero emissions by 2060. The United Arab Emirates has set a goal of 2050. Though they remain among the biggest producers of fossil fuels, both say they are working to diversify their economies and investing in renewables and cleaner energy. The next two United Nations climate conferences will take place in Egypt and the UAE, as Middle East governments acknowledge they also stand to lose from rising temperatures and sea levels.

Kuwait, by contrast, pledged at the COP26 summit in November to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 7.4% by 2035, a target that falls far short of the 45% reduction needed to meet the Paris Agreement’s stretch goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C by 2030. The nation’s $700 billion sovereign wealth fund invests with the specific aim of hedging against oil, but has said that returns remain a priority as it shifts to more sustainable investing.

“Compared with the rest of the Middle East, Kuwait lags in its climate action,” said Manal Shehabi, an academic visitor at Oxford University who studies the Gulf nations. In a region that’s far from doing enough to avoid catastrophic global warming, “climate pledges in Kuwait are [still] significantly lower.”

Sheikh Abdullah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, head of the EPA, told COP26 that his country was keen to support international initiatives to stabilize the climate. Kuwait also pledged to adopt a “national low carbon strategy” by mid-century, but it hasn’t said what this will involve and there is little evidence of action on the ground.

That prompted one Twitter user to post pictures of wilted palm trees, asking how his government had the nerve to show up.

Jassim Al-Awadhi is part of a younger generation of Kuwaitis increasingly worried about their country’s future. The 32-year-old former banker quit his job to push for a change that experts argue could be Kuwait’s key to addressing global warming: revamping attitudes toward transportation. His goal is to get Kuwaitis to embrace public transport, which today consists only of the buses that are mostly used by migrant workers with low-paying jobs who have no choice but to put up with the heat.

It’s an uphill struggle. Though Kuwait has among the world’s highest carbon-dioxide emissions per capita, the idea of ditching their cars is completely foreign to most residents in a country where petrol is cheaper than Coca Cola and cities are designed for automobiles.

The London School of Economics, which conducted the only comprehensive survey of climate opinions in Kuwait, found older residents remain skeptical of the urgency, with some speaking of a conspiracy to hobble Gulf economies. In a public consultation, everyone over 50-years-old opposed plans to build a metro network like those already operating in Riyadh and Dubai. And the private sector sees climate change as a problem that requires government leadership to solve.

“When I tell companies let’s do something, they say it’s not their business,’’ Al-Awadhi said. “They make me feel I’m the only one who has problems with transport.”

4 Responses to “What Happens When a Country Becomes Unlivable?”

  1. Keith Omelvena Says:

    Using desalinated water to grow trees? The equivalent of running AC to cool down. Stupid is!

    • redskylite Says:

      Unfortunately that area of the world lacks water resource and much of the water is sourced from the Persian Gulf. There are a few springs in mountainous parts, but mostly dry arid deserts.

      “The construction of desalination plants and a cloud-seeding strategy has helped the UAE address water challenges. However, challenges still remain.

      The idea of using artificial plantation for small-scale city beautification projects could help curb the abuse of vital water resources, Ianelli said.

      “Dubai Municipality uses recycled waste water to irrigate the green spaces around Dubai and it’s admirable.

      “But in this climate, artificial plant alternatives could be a good option for some landscapes where the water resources needed to maintain real plants and trees would not warrant the investment.”


  2. redskylite Says:

    What happens when successive governments and businesses ignore sound scientific advise and continue “business as usual” for falsely perceived stability in profits and finance – for so many decades. Even and much more stupid is !!

    “A new study has found that the release of novel entities — artificial chemicals and other human-made pollutants — has accelerated to a point that we have crossed a “planetary boundary,” threatening the entire Earth operating system, along with humanity.”


  3. redskylite Says:

    Countries need to cooperate to survive the heat and future challenges. Seems many understand that already.


    “A United Arab Emirates-based company would build a solar farm in Jordan, including the transmission lines that would connect it to Israel — possibly by 2026. Israel, meanwhile, already operates five desalination plants along its Mediterranean Coast and has two more in the planning stage.”


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