The summer of 2022 was marked by devastating heatwaves around the world, a level of extreme heat that was yet “another clear indicator that emissions of greenhouse gases by human activity are causing weather extremes that impact our living condition,” said Steve Pawson, chief of the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Temperature records were repeatedly shattered; wildfires blazed across the Mediterranean; and extreme heat contributed to thousands of deaths across Europe.
In June 2022, the distressing heat effects in Europe in particular were the focus of the latest bout of extreme weather events caused by climate change. In July alone, western news outlets reported dozens of stories on how the heatwaves were most seriously affecting Europeans: from threats to Britain’s economy and agricultural industry; to wildfires in Spain and Portugal; to reports of thousands of French residents being evacuated from their homes. One New York Times article even advised readers on how to cope with the changing European tourism landscape as climate change continues to morph the world we’ve always known.
It is true that Europe is targeted by extreme heat more than other mid-latitude areas, and this past summer caused many to confront the continent’s uncertain future in the wake of increasing climate change-fueled emergencies like heatwaves, especially when much of its infrastructure is not AC-equipped. However, while the news coverage from this summer should not be underestimated, it is important to recognize that the volume of mainstream media reporting on Europe’s heatwaves overwhelmingly overshadowed blazing heat crises in other parts of the world like the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
In Baghdad, temperatures soared to dangerous 50-degree Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) levels this summer, devastating Iraq’s already vulnerable electrical infrastructure. Iraq now ranks fifth on the list of countries most impacted by climate change, but it has been experiencing more extreme temperatures for years. In 2015, the Iraqi government announced a mandatory “heat holiday” on days above 50 degrees Celsius, and government workers were ordered to stay home. It has been mandating these holidays on extremely hot days since. A 2021 study conducted by the European Institute of Security studies estimated that Baghdad will experience 40 “extreme heat days” per year by 2039, roughly three times the number of annual extreme heat days it experiences now. Increasingly high temperatures will only continue to overwhelm an already fractured Iraq, especially as the country descends into more uncertainty after recent political clashes.
There is still “little interest and funding for studying the impacts of climate change in the Mediterranean and North Africa region.”
In North Africa, across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain and Portugal, wildfires also raged in Morocco and Algeria, killing dozens and wounding hundreds, and causing still thousands more to be evacuated from the most fire-ridden areas. The wildfires prompted criticism over both countries’ lack of fire technology. This critique, however, is just a small part of the larger conversation on individual countries’ ability to adapt to skyrocketing temperatures and other climate change-induced effects — a challenge that low- and middle-income countries will most certainly struggle to meet.
One study predicts that, if nothing is done about climate change, the MENA region could see temperatures upwards of 56 degrees Celsius (132.8 degrees Fahrenheit) in the second half of this century — just 28 years from now. By 2100, some urban centers could even see 60 degrees — all but guaranteeing near impossible living conditions as well as bubbling tensions due to drought, water woes, and food shortages. So, in the wake of these incredibly apocalyptic predictions, why didn’t the same alarm bells ring for the Middle East as they did for Europe?
To start, local climate data in the region is scarce. The same study that predicted the 56-degree Celsius temperatures—a conservative estimate—also argues that much of the scientific data on heatwave projections in the MENA region is “mostly based on global simulations at relatively coarse resolution” or “on regional modeling of the edges of European and Mediterranean model domains.” This reliance on European and global modeling devalues the unique “weather regimes” in the MENA region, specifically its distinct topographical landscape.
Another study underscores the cyclical harm that underreporting events like heatwaves into global disaster databases can lead to. The Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT), one of the largest of these databases, based in Belgium, records “technological and environmental disasters across the world” ranging from “extreme weather to earthquakes and oil spills, and record their impacts on lives, livelihoods, and economic costs.” A disaster is included in EM-DAT if it is reported to kill more than ten people, affect more than 100 people, cause a state emergency, or call for international assistance. However, extreme heat events in certain parts of the world are “not routinely monitored.” For example, during the week of Jul. 18 to Jul. 24, 2022, EM-DAT reported a heatwave for the whole of Europe, while heatwaves occurring during the same week in countries like Iraq went unrecorded in the database. This gap in reporting diminishes our understanding of how extreme heat can be so deadly, and it eliminates countries’ ability to create future heat action plans.
The only region that perhaps faces an even greater crisis of climate and weather-related modeling, data collection, and reporting than MENA is Sub-Saharan Africa. According to the same study, the EM-DAT lists “no more than two heatwaves in sub-Saharan Africa since the beginning of the 20th Century, leading to 71 recorded premature deaths,” while in contrast, the same database has reported over “83 heatwaves…in Europe over the same timeframe, contributing to more than 140,000 associated deaths.” Since heatwave mortality goes unreported, our understanding of the thresholds that result in heat-related deaths in these parts of the world is unclear.
Despite the dangers that come with data gaps like these, the case for researching more localized climate data in these regions is still weak. In a 2021 news release by the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change, director of the Regional Models and geo-Hydrological Impacts division Paola Mercogliano admitted that there is still “little interest and funding for studying the impacts of climate change in the Mediterranean and North Africa region.”
Beyond the lack of available climate and weather data is the issue of data reporting by governments on heat events and heat-related illnesses and deaths. Some countries in the MENA region, particularly in the Gulf, have been notably unreliable at reporting instances of heat-related health impacts, specifically in the case of affected migrant workers and non-citizens. In Qatar, for example, a BBC investigation recently uncovered that the country has been underreporting the number of migrant workers who have died of heat stroke as temperatures climbed above 50 degrees Celsius this summer.
Of course, many regions outside the MENA region face the very real, present-day horrors of climate change. Reports from April 2022 showed that the Indian subcontinent was already experiencing temperatures upwards of 50 degrees Celsius; China dealt with a devastating, months-long drought; and a third of Pakistan was wiped out by “apocalyptic” flooding during its increasingly long and extreme monsoon season.
A lack of climate and weather-related modeling and data collection unequivocally played a role in the nearly nonexistent heatwave reporting by western news outlets we saw across the Middle East and North Africa this past summer. However, it’s only one piece of the story. Beyond modeling and data collection, there is a lack of willingness of western audiences to understand the bleak reality that vulnerable regions like MENA and Sub-Saharan Africa face, as well as how reporting inequities play a role in the future of these regions.
Rachel Santarsiero is a Spring 2022 Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the National Security Archive. She focuses on issues related to the Middle East as well as Climate Change and Security.