Defying Saudis, Iran: Muslim thinkers call for Action on Climate Change at Istanbul Conference

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Attendees at the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in Istanbul from 20 countries produced, and 60 of them signed, a declaration this week warning of the dangers of climate change and urging urgent action to curb carbon dioxide emissions.

But, I fear the press reporting on this meeting is exaggerating its significance.

Contemporary Islam is more like Protestantism in Christianity than like Roman Catholicism, in not having a single head or firm church hierarchy. While the message of the symposium is most welcome and one hopes it will be influential, it has to be pointed out that it seems to come mainly from Muslim academics, with only a few clerics joining in, and that there weren’t many representatives from the Muslim world’s big hydrocarbon states such as Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t seem that al-Azhar Seminary in Cairo, Egypt, one of the foremost seats of Sunni learning and authority, was in any way involved.

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The most important clerics seem to have been the mufti or jurisconsult of Lebanon, the mufti of Uganda (where Muslims are a minority), and Din Syamsuddin, the chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI). With the exception of the latter, these university professors and NGO heads are not the real authorities in the Muslim world.

In fact, that culture region has a problem when it comes to taking on climate change. While it does not generate very much of the world’s CO2, its major countries produce much of the petroleum and gas that is burned by the industrialized world– Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, e.g.

Oil states such as Saudi Arabia are extremely influential in the Muslim world, spending billions on influencing preachers and mosque congregations.

Saudi Arabia’s officials led the charge at international meetings in the 1990s forward on climate change denial and attempting to stop international bodies from highlighting this issue.

Though, it should be underlined that some hydrocarbon states, such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, frankly recognize the problem of global warming and urge climate action. Qatar mainly produces natural gas, which produces about half the carbon pollution of coal, so in a way its product could help reduce carbon emissions in places like India and China that are now heavily coal-reliant. But this process is only a decade-long bridge to wind and solar, which will soon be so inexpensive even not counting externalities that the world will abandon oil and gas.

The Guardian says only one of the attendees at the Istanbul conference was a Saudi national. And all the Shiite invitees from the Middle East declined the invitation (Iran is the chief patron of Shiites, and it has big plans for selling more oil and gas once international sanctions are removed as a result of the UN Security council deal on its civilian nuclear enrichment program.) The Shiite mystic and intellectual Seyyed Hossein Nasr attended from the United States.

Indeed, many of the speakers and signatories at the conference appear to be expatriate Muslims in the West.

It is the hydrocarbon-consuming countries, not the producers, that are taking the lead on carbon reduction. Morocco, for instance, wants to get 40% of its energy from renewables in only five or six years. Malysia, Indonesia, Turkey and Lebanon bulk large at the Istanbul conference, and they are all consuming, not producing nations. So I think we are beginning to see a split between the Muslim producers of oil & gas, and the Muslim consumers of these fuels. The consumers are more fearful of the effects of climate change and less negatively affected if renewables are substituted for fossil fuels. They will likely get pressure and pushback from oil states like Saudi Arabia.

And it was for the most part intellectuals from the consuming countries who produced this document.

The manifesto argues that the vision of the Qur’an, the Muslim scripture, is that God has created the world to be in balance, and charged human beings to be wise stewards of its bounties. There is some pretty good green theology in the statement.

I checked Arabic news for reports of the manifesto, and didn’t find it mentioned in the major Saudi-funded press. Nor did it seem to be in the Egyptian press. The independent Arabic media outlets, Middle East Online (based in London) and Al Bawaba did carry the story (the latter is based in Amman, Jordan). Maybe the rest of Arab media will carry it tomorrow, I don’t know. But it isn’t there as I write.

So, no, this declaration isn’t like the Encyclical of Pope Francise. It is more like a resolution passed at the annual conference of the Modern Language Association (not there is anything wrong with the latter). But it is a welcome sign that Muslim intellectuals are thinking about how to enlist their faith in the fight against climate change. It is brave and selfless of them; but they’re likely to suffer for it.

10 Responses

  1. The sooner the consuming countries develop methods to reduce/avoid fossil fuels, and the more their populations push them, the less will be the influence of Saudi Arabia, whose corrosive effects on climate change, wars, terrorism are far too large.

  2. It’s a small step but a step in the right direction. A growing number of groups around the world can see what is happening.

    One advantage that the Saudis have besides the large amount of oil they possess is that they still produce oil at very low cost compared to other nations. So they’ll be around as one of the last producers still selling oil as the transition to alternative energy continues. Much depends on what kind of reserves they have left and what plans, if any, they have in the future.

    If I understand it right, the Saudi have installed a small amount of solar under the justification that it frees up more oil to sell to others. They can’t be totally unaware of what is happening.

    I assume their business realism will eventually kick in. Or is that taking too much for granted?

    • It’s not at all clear whether “business realism” will kick in for the Saudis, who are an aristocracy with no tradition of business sense. Ibn Saud was frankly a warlord of a very archaic style, and his successors are nearly as atavistic.

      The UAE, Qatar, Oman, and even Bahrain have been “merchant prince” states, wealth derived from trading, for several hundred years, and they have taught their princes to prioritize business realism first, since the 1500s or earlier. They’ve been in the slave trade, the spice trade, and other trades before their current period in the oil trade. Therefore they WILL see the market shift coming and will switch out of the dying oil market into the growing solar market ASAP. They’re already doing it.

      The same is NOT true in Saudi Arabia, which has a totally different history.

  3. Indonesia is a hydrocarbon producing nation, however a majority of the consumption is domestic rather than generating export earnings. Their hydrocarbon fuel bounty provides the petrol subsidies relied on by Indondesian households. Talk of ending the subsidies quickly leads to protests. It’s hot button political issue across Indonesia.

  4. It’s interesting that the poorer countries, Turkey et al., are pushing for it while the richer, oil-producers are at best lukewarm. Could this be another strategy for the poorer countries to “shake down” their richer co-religionists? (Too cynical?)

  5. Iran is often looking to replicate or produce new parts and tools of their own to deal with emissions. Iran is not stagnant in the matter or careless as you accuse them.

  6. A very misleading heading Dr. Cole.

    The US Department of Energy in its Report 2014, listed China, United States, Russia, India, Japan, Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, South Korea and Islamic Republic as world’s top ten Carbon emission (polluting) nations in that order.

    Pity, the Saudi ‘royals’ even didn’t make the ‘top ten’ list.

    link to

  7. It doesn’t surprise me that the most prominent member of the group is from the island nation of Indonesia. The Islamic world embraces many cultures and lifestyles.

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