climate change religion

Will climate change make the Hajj impossible?

The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, a pilgrimmage to the holy city of Mecca that all Muslims aim to carry out at least once in their lifetime. Others will go more often, and here in Luton I can walk down to Bury Park and find travel agencies specialising in Hajj packages.

Mecca is in Saudi Arabia, already one of the world’s hottest and driest countries. Global warming is making it worse, which is increasing the risks involved in traveling there. As Islamic Relief are currently highlighting, climate change is going to make the Hajj very dangerous indeed.

When we think of the risks associated with climate change, we tend to think of rising sea levels or extreme weather. In areas that are already very hot, the most immediate risk is direct heat. The human body can only survive within a certain temperature range. Beyond a certain point, the body’s natural cooling mechanisms no longer work. Dehydration and heat exhaustion set in, with the risk of a potentially deadly heat stroke.

The effects of extreme heat partly depend on humidity, and so researchers measure both together to get a ‘wet bulb temperature‘. The threshold where dangerous heat becomes extremely dangerous heat is 29.1 degrees celsius at wet bulb temperature, and a recent study has looked at the likelihood of that risk in Saudi Arabia.

They found that heat and humidity levels will be extremely dangerous 6% of the time by 2020, rising to 20% by 2045.

Saudi Arabia actually experiences dangerous heat most of the time, which is why the country burns 700,000 barrels of oil a day on air conditioning in mid-summer. That’s a big source of climate emissions in itself of course, and there are huge investments in solar power at the moment to try and reduce them. But even if it could be powered sustainably, air conditioning can’t solve the problem for the Hajj. Many of the most important elements of the pilgrimmage are outdoors, including prayers outside the Great Mosque and visiting Mount Arafat. These are already very crowded events. When the Hajj falls in the summer months, a heatwave could turn into a tragedy.

Because the Hajj is so central to the Islamic faith, the climate risk to the tradition is a real catalyst for action. Alongside teachings about justice and solidarity with the world’s poor, so is the fact that some of the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change are majority Muslim. Islamic Relief are urging Muslims in Britain to lobby their MPs about the climate crisis. Among their demands are that Britain bring forward its net zero target to 2045.

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