In nearly all the interviews that the research team conducted across a range of demographic profiles – citizens and non-citizens, experts and non-experts, young and old – there was a shared experience of climate change by respondents in their daily lives that has been evidenced in the scientific literature. In relation to climate change, interviewees frequently cited the longer summers and shorter winters, and the extreme weather conditions more broadly, with several noting Kuwait’s record-breaking temperatures and the November 2018 floods that strained the country’s infrastructure.1 From our engagement with the inhabitants of Kuwait (both citizens and non-citizens), there was broadly no evidence of outright climate change denial among the populous. This resonates with the first large-scale public opinion survey conducted on climate change in Kuwait (and the broader GCC) by Elmi, in which 80% of Kuwaitis surveyed reported that they believed that the earth is warming due to human activities.2
The experts engaged in this research through a high-level political and policy focus group provided in-depth accounts of how Kuwait has experienced the impact of climate change in recent years.3 This included the extreme weather events (noted above) but in addition they added, the risk of sea level rises to areas around Shuwaikh and the Northern Islands, coral bleaching, and the destruction of marine life. They also cited public health impacts with an increase in the number of people suffering from asthma due to air pollution and expressed concern over the impact of climate change on food security.4
Sea level rise data, at 0.5m (lightest yellow), 1m, 1.5m, and 2m (darkest orange) sea level rize.
Source: Alsahli, Mohammad M. M., and Ahmed M. AlHasem. 2016. Vulnerability of Kuwait coast to sea level rise. Geografisk Tidsskrift-Danish Journal of Geography 116: 56–70. https://doi.org/10.1080/00167223.2015.1121403.
Despite the shared collective experience articulated in our interviews that the climate is changing because of human activity, our interviewees noted that the understanding of climate change remains weak among the broader populous and within government. Our research shows that there exists a divergent understanding of what climate change is, its implications for the country, who it impacts and how, and to what extent state and society should address it. In the high-level political focus group, there was almost unanimous consensus that the government did not take climate change seriously and that neither government officials or the public fully comprehend the implications of it.5 One participant, an urban expert, stated that “100 percent the government does not understand the issue of climate change” and that in their opinion there is no understanding of climate change among the public.6 An environmental expert concurred: “There is no grasp among the public of what climate change or the Paris agreement means for Kuwait.” Several respondents to this research either stated that they themselves or Kuwaiti society more broadly saw environmental questions, like climate change, as “luxury” issues or “Western” concerns.
The experiences of extreme weather events have provoked conversations around climate change in Kuwait. Our media analysis shows that there is a notable rise – from an almost non-existent base - in the reference to environmental concerns more broadly, and to a certain extent, climate change in both social and traditional media when extreme weather events occur.7 In 2017 (the year Kuwait recorded a record high temperature), there was a notable increase in media coverage related to the environment in the context of extreme temperatures and dust storms that continued into 2018.8 In 2019, the head of the EPA explicitly linked the deadly 2018 floods to climate change.9 This is, to our knowledge, among the first public statements by a Kuwaiti government entity linking extreme weather events in Kuwait to climate change in the mainstream media.
Our analysis demonstrated that extreme weather events in Kuwait have resulted in some reporting about the environment - and to a certain extent climate change explicitly - in mainstream Arabic and English-language media in the country. However, our interviewees stressed that after these “extreme weather events” have passed, the discussion around the environment and climate change dissipates. Senior Kuwaiti Environmental Specialist Samia Al Duaij stated that while there is wide acceptance in Kuwait that the recent extreme heat and flooding are caused by climate change, after these weather events have passed there is “collective amnesia” amongst the population.10
The government’s response to climate change has been inconsistent. On the one hand, the government linked the deadly November 2018 flash floods to the consequences of climate change (as noted above), and has in its reporting to the IPCC and FCCC committed to transitioning away from a carbon intensive society. Along with other countries in the Arab world, Kuwait has agreed to reduce energy consumption and employ renewable energy sources to reduce GHG emissions.11 The government plans to generate 15 percent of its energy via renewables by 2030. On the other hand, the state simultaneously worked – along with Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States – to block a landmark study on global warming at COP24.12 While undertaking this research we found that government officials were reluctant to be engaged with our study on the question of climate change. Participants in the high-level political and policy focus group not only expressed frustration around government officials’ understanding of climate change but also highlighted issues related to government coordination and “inefficacies” in the implementation of initiatives and targets related to climate change.13
The Environment Public Authority (EPA) is the national focal point for the UNFCCC. The EPA is part of the Supreme Council for the Environment that is chaired by the First Deputy Prime Minister of Kuwait.14 Tariq Al Dowaisan, a candidate in the 2020 Kuwait elections, remarked that unlike the EPA in the United States (an independent executive agency), Kuwait’s EPA does not have political independence or power.15 In the high-level political and policy focus group a participant stated that the EPA was “sleeping at the wheel when it comes to climate change”.16 Several interviewees and focus group participants noted that while Kuwait has a good legal and regulatory framework in relation to environmental protection there is a lack of implementation of existing policies and enforcement of laws. Even when laws are enforced, the Senior Environmental Specialist noted, the fines for pollution are not relative to the pollution caused, which means it is often cheaper for entities to pay the fine than reduce emissions.17
Transport constitutes 18 percent of Kuwait’s total annual GHG emissions, and participants in this study frequently referred to it in relation to climate change or the environment more broadly.18 As a report on Kuwait’s urban model remarks: “The city has been designed for cars, and has poor pedestrian infrastructure. Weather conditions, cultural housing preferences, the absence of an efficient public transport, and the availability of cheap petrol… have all contributed to car-dependent sprawl and long commuting distances.”19 An urban expert in the high-level political focus group cited the construction of new roads – specifically the ring road that was recently built – as evidence of how the government is not taking climate change seriously: “This single construction project [the new ring road] alone is doing more damage than all the current initiatives [by the government] to mitigate climate change.” They added that in their consultations with the public sector on urban planning, proposals continue to be put forward to offset the problem of traffic with new roads.20 Hundreds of kilometers of roads are being built, linking new urban developments that are “completely unsustainable,” the urban expert stated.
The levels of private car ownership have outstripped the projections of pervious masterplans. A technical study on transport for the fourth master plan notes that the ten-year modal share (the percentage of travelers using a particular type of transportation) of all transport in Kuwait is 80 percent for cars and just 0.2 percent for public buses.21 Buses are the only mode of public transport and bus ridership levels have dropped since the 1990s, despite the increase in population.22 The bus infrastructure is poor. There have been some limited efforts in Kuwait to encourage greater use of public transport and Kuwaiti academics and policy makers are aware of its potential to reduce GHG emissions.23 Shaikhah Al Jassim, as part of her parliamentary campaign supported efforts to encourage Kuwaiti citizens to use public transport as well as the work by public transport advocacy group Kuwait Commute.24 However, her support for public transport was framed in relation to efforts to improve traffic rather than tackle climate change.
In our interviews and media review there was often a conflation between climate change and other environmental issues, such as, littering. Several NGOs focus on environmental issues in Kuwait, these include: the Kuwait Environment Protection Society, Trashtag Kuwait, Green Line Kuwait, Al Manakh Kuwait, Sustainable Living Kuwait, ENVearth, and Basta Kuwait. Most of these groups do not focus on climate change. They focus upon: littering; water issues (potable water); the cleaning and protection of the sea through beach clean ups; encouraging recycling and sustainable living; and raising awareness on environmental issues, such as pollution. Beach clean-ups have become one of the most popular and visible activities through which the inhabitants of Kuwait, corporations and government officials, engage on environmental issues.25 Furthermore, as was stated in our interviews and has been set out in a recent paper by Nele Lenze, beach clean-ups have become as much about civic engagement than the environment.26