Fundamentalist Christians believe that the appearance of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, predicted in the Bible’s book of Revelation, heralds the coming of the Last Judgment, the day of reckoning common to all Abrahamic faiths, including Islam.
Believers, of course, will be saved on doomsday. But should the looming apocalypse of global warming that today threatens all life on Earth come to pass as predicted, none will be spared.
The outriders of the impending cataclysm – rising temperatures, raging forest fires, floods, crop failures, and hunger – are, while bad enough by themselves, less immediately biblical than the appearance of the four supernatural riders astride their white, red, black, and pale horses.
And yet, we would be wise to view the dust storms that frequently blanket vast regions of the Middle East as a herald of impending disaster – much as the pall of dust rising over a hill in a Hollywood Western signals the imminent arrival of bandits bent on murder and mayhem.
Since early April, swaths of Iraq and other parts of the Middle East have been swept by a series of storms that have turned skies an ominous orange, closed schools and airports, and sent thousands struggling to breathe in search of help and oxygen in hospitals.
Of course, dust and sandstorms are nothing new in the region. What is concerning is that they are coming earlier in the year – they are historically common in late spring and summer – and are more frequent and widespread than in the past.
On May 16, NASA’s Earth Observatory reported that, since the beginning of April, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East had already been hit by eight severe dust storms in just six weeks. The skies above Baghdad, Najaf, Sulaymaniyah, and other cities turned orange as visibility dropped to a few hundred meters. Airports, schools, and government offices were closed in seven of Iraq’s 18 provinces, and several governors declared states of emergency.
In the same way that it is all too easy to dismiss other manifestations of climate change as freakish, one-off aberrations, the earlier arrival of dust storms might be explained away as “exceptions that prove the rule.” But such “exceptions” – as with the unseasonal flooding, forest fires, and other weather-related phenomena afflicting various parts of the world – should instead be seen as linked events that together add up to being nature’s way of warning us that the planet is rapidly approaching a breaking point.
Dust or sandstorms in Iraq, which also hit Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states this year, are caused by winds such as the “shamal,” which blows from the northwest and carries dust and debris picked up across the Tigris-Euphrates basin – and as far away as Jordan and Syria.
These winds are generated by a bewildering combination of climatic conditions, originating in the Mediterranean, the Iranian Zagros Mountains, the summer monsoon low-pressure systems that develop in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and in the unusually warmer or cooler surface temperatures that occur in the Pacific, known as El Nino and La Nina.
Human activity is contributing at every level, from the droughts in Iraq, to the over-farming of land creating more dust, and the worrying evidence that La Nina, the widely influential weather system in the tropical Pacific, is poised to continue for a third year – a rare event not witnessed since 1950.
Among the brutal facts to be found in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the reality that, despite all the talk at all of the 26 UN Climate Conferences since COP1, back in 1995, the volume of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions has risen steadily and dramatically.
In 1990, the world pumped out 38 gigatons of CO2-equivalent emissions. In 2019, it was 59 gigatons, 27 percent of which emanated from the worst polluting region, East Asia. At the same time, while the price of renewables has fallen sharply since 2000, the global uptake of solar and wind power has not kept pace. In 2020, photovoltaics accounted for just 3 percent of global electricity generation, onshore wind 6 percent, and offshore wind less than 1 percent.
As for the much-hyped revolution in electric cars, these remain a niche product, which in 2020 still accounted for less than 1 percent of the global vehicle fleet.
Even if all the countries that delivered emission-reduction pledges prior to COP26 last year stick to them – and history tells us the chance of this is vanishingly small – the IPCC predicts that emissions will continue to rise, and we will still fail to prevent the worst of global warming.
It is easy to reassure ourselves that we are doing our bit, both individually and collectively. We turn off lights whenever possible, we recycle waste, we conserve household water, we consider buying an electric car. On a global scale, the nations of the world get together once a year at the annual climate change conference, their delegates nodding in agreement at the calls to act “now or never,” and pledging to limit their global warming emissions.
But we should not be reassured. As the latest report from the IPCC makes painfully clear, we are doing far too little, far too late. The horsemen of the apocalypse are on the far side of the hill, and they are approaching fast.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.