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Thinking with Iraq on Climate Change

Session V-15, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
Consequences of the warming planet are experienced acutely in Iraq, from its sprawling cities to its shrinking marshes. This is evident in ongoing trends of record-breaking temperatures and extreme drought conditions in recent decades. Even while the carbon economy degrades Iraq’s land, air and water resources, the petroleum industry remains Iraq's largest source of national income. Yet, Iraq’s centrality in ongoing debates around climate change is overlooked. Often exceptionalized as a site of war and violence, Iraq remains marginal in critical studies of environmental justice and climate change. This interdisciplinary panel introduces new frameworks for conceptualizing social and ecological resilience to the climate crisis that emerge from recent research on Iraq in cultural anthropology, architectural and environmental planning history, political economy, and media studies. This panel seeks to engage questions of how climate change impacts the earth beyond quantifiable elemental units of analysis and instead foregrounds how Iraqis experience and respond to the violence of living in environments and a climate degraded by the legacies of occupation and war. The papers in this panel demonstrate how colonialism, capitalism and climate change converge palpably in the everyday lives of Iraqis who endure water insecurity, infrastructural failure and public health crises abetted by political obstruction, corruption and collapse.
Architecture & Urban Planning
Media Arts
  • Each summer since 2005, Iraq’s national electrical grid has failed Iraqis living in dense urban neighborhoods, forcing them to create “temporary” fixes to cope with record-breaking heat waves in the absence of reliable or sufficient electricity and clean water. While uninterrupted access to electricity is regarded as a ‘foundational apparatus’ of modernity, from Iraq we learn how the perpetual emergencies of climate change and infrastructural collapse together redefine the modern condition. When the American-led occupation of Iraq established a dysfunctional sectarian regime and effectively politicized the country’s energy sector, the country’s infrastructure became a symbol for the occupation and common targets for sabotage by insurgent and later Islamic State militias causing significant material damage and creating heightened risk for electrical workers. Despite the billions of dollars that have been invested in grid rehabilitation since the first days of the occupation, national electrical infrastructure still cannot meet demand by a significant margin. Presumed unreliability of grid infrastructure means that those who can afford it must pay for neighborhood level provision by diesel-powered communal generator operators while others resort to “stealing” energy or making do without an electrical supply. Centered on an analysis of a global news (AP) media archive covering Iraq’s annual heatwaves, this paper argues that attention to the everyday lives of urban residents coping with Iraq’s electricity crisis demonstrates how people navigate the convergence of accelerating climate change, infrastructural failure, economic instability and political dysfunction that characterize and compromise the transition to less carbon-intensive systems in Iraq, and elsewhere. To do this, the paper examines how the archive, as an accumulation of documentary footage and interview sound bites that reproduce an uncanny and singular media narrative and image of ‘Iraqis in crisis’ year after year, works to further exceptionalize Iraq as a site of perpetual crisis and obscures the interlocked histories of Iraqis struggling for environmental, political and social justice. The paper then re-situates and offers close readings from the media archive in light of the political legacies of war and occupation that have shaped Iraq’s landscape of energy infrastructure and the contours of urban life.
  • Iraq is one of the most oil rich, water abundant states and yet it is today the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to climate change due to decreased water, food insecurity, and rising temperatures. How did this happen? This paper argues that the human impact on the environment is not agnostic, but the direct result of a legacy of political violence that produced Iraq’s current state of crisis. It develops this argument by analyzing life in one of Iraq’s most potent symbols of national heritage: the southern marshlands, which in 2016 became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Water insecurity is a major contributing factor to the environmental vulnerability Iraqi citizens face today. The paper first charts a history of Iraq’s post-war reconstruction policies that amplified biodiversity conservation of the marshes, but gave foreign country donors carte blanche to direct the project in ways that fit their extractive interests in the water and oil resources located within the same geological field. It then analyzes how marshlands residents developed strategies to stay on the land, asserting their inheritance to the wetlands in spite of rising levels of salinity and pollution that make the marshes nearly uninhabitable. In so doing, the paper foregrounds a theory of environmental justice Tishreen revolutionaries have articulated that begins not with the call to “green” the future—campaigns which have fueled extractive industry in Iraq—but with an economic and political reckoning that re-centers Iraq’s citizens and their sovereign right to land.
  • After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, doctors in Fallujah noticed a higher rate of unusual congenital anomalies. To the community, the change was obvious and obviously linked to the war’s environmental impact. On the one hand, anomaly itself is not anomalous, but in fact the very mechanism by which species, ecologies, and beings sustain continuity amidst changing conditions. On the other hand, anomaly marks newness and difference that can signal harm and alarm in ecosystems under stress. In this case, the sudden occurrence of anomalous bodies signaled teratogenic violence pertinent to environmental justice campaigns. Yet scientific and legal individuation makes it difficult to prove that such a phenomenon was caused by an event that could mark a before and after (in this case, war). But in the longer wake of military violence in Fallujah, another problem with proof emerged: war, rather than an anomalous event itself, became a continuity. That which was a useful marker of anomalous time or possible cause became a chronic condition. This talk explores one core conceptual question, relevant to those thinking forensically about long-dure phenomena like climate change, corporate pollution, or global militarism: what is the role of anomaly in helping us to make meaning of a phenomenon or to prove an injustice? And what happens when the exception becomes the rule, when anomaly drops out of our cognitive toolkit?