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Jewish Literary Review
At Level Ground
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Tuesday, July 03, 2007
Apocalypse Now
Hot summers are just the beginning. Israel is on the verge of agricultural devastation and increased flooding among any number of global warming related disasters. Welcome to a whole new Holy Land.

From our July/August 2007 issue. This article is part of our larger package, the AJL Green List.

Israel has a lot to worry about. Nuclear threats from Iran, a seemingly intractable stalemate with the Palestinians, the resurgence of global anti-Semitism -- not to mention a prime minister with an approval rating, as of this writing, of an astonishingly abysmal 2%. But according to a small but growing consensus of scientists and environmentalists, there's another looming crisis to add to the list: climate change.

That’s right. The “inconvenient truth” may be more than just inconvenient for Israel. According to the Israeli government’s report to the UN Convention on Climate Change, the potential effects of global climate change on Israel include a 4-8% drop in precipitation, a shortened rainy season, and increased severity of “extreme climate events.” That’s bad news, obviously, for a country perched on the edge of a desert, and with water scarcity already a serious environmental — and political — issue.

“But that is just the beginning,” says Alon Tal, Executive Director of the Israeli Union for Environmental Defense, Israel’s leading environmental advocacy group. Tal, who recently won the $100,000 Charles Bronfman Prize for his work, says that because Israel is a country of micro-climates — the desert south, the fertile north, the dry hills of Jerusalem, the wet lowlands of Tel Aviv — the individual local effects are often far worse than the average ones. A couple of degrees warmer in Jerusalem may not make that much of a difference — but the same increase in southern agricultural regions could be disastrous. “Even in a non-worst-case scenario,” Tal wrote in a recent article in the online magazine Zeek (of which, by way of full disclosure, I am one of the editors), the statistics don’t tell the whole story. The litany of likely outcomes includes, in Tal’s words, “agricultural devastation, increased floods, and very hot summers,” as well as a host of lesser, but still damaging, consequences like beach erosion.

This would be a disaster, particularly for agriculture. Basically, everything is moving north. Already, the Arava desert is getting dryer, and soon, it’s likely that the Negev desert will overtake the city of Be’ersheva. A shortened rainy season will mean decreased yields. A projected 10% increase in “evapotranspiration” will mean plants will need more water to survive, straining already-strained resources. And the Galilee’s “bread basket” will grow smaller and less fertile, even with only a moderate rise in global temperatures. So much for “making the desert bloom” — climate change would make the Galilee wither.

“Climate change will produce some winners and some losers,” Tal explains. “Unfortunately, it looks like Israel will be one of the losers.”

A shift in Israel’s climactic zones would also have severe ecological effects, on top of the economic ones. Even if Israel can somehow find the increased water to irrigate its crops more, and use its famous agricultural technological know-how to rehabilitate the Galilee, it’s certain that the ibexes, hyraxes, and other furry critters of Israel’s tiny eco-tones won’t adapt so easily. Nor will the Jewish National Fund (JNF) pine forests, ill-equipped to withstand accelerated desertification. These environmental losses are harder to tally up on the balance sheet, but in a country already feeling a bit too much like the urbanized Singapore, they could have serious repercussions on the national psyche.

One of the most commonly-known side effects of climate change is a rise in overall sea levels, due to the melting of the polar ice caps. Here, the scope of the problem is uncertain — Israeli government estimates for sea-level rise range anywhere from 12 to 88 centimeters. (Of course, the few lingering doubters of climate change like to say that the whole phenomenon is uncertain, but every climatologist not on the payroll of an oil company agrees that global warming is real; the uncertainties are only regarding details like this one.) But Tal added that even a modest rise in sea levels would seriously erode Israel’s beaches and require massive reinforcements to the roads near Eilat. Estimates of the cost of improving that infrastructure run into the billions of dollars. Not to mention the loss in tourism due to beach erosion — large numbers of Europeans, remember, come for the beaches, not the ruins.

Finally, as with the snows (soon to be the former snows) of Kilimanjaro, and the glaciers (soon to be the former glaciers) of Glacier National Park, the effects of climate change on Israel are already here, and already visible. Jaffa was known for “hundred-year floods,” which periodically came about as a confluence of various meteorological events. Now Tel Aviv suffers them once a decade. According to Israeli government statistics, the chance of a day being rated as ‘very hot’ as opposed to ‘moderately hot’ has increased by 300% during the past forty years.” And one study by geologist Hanan Ginat of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies indicates a 50% drop in precipitation over the last forty years.


If Israel faces serious agricultural disruption, and the huge loss of wildlife that shifts in its climactic zones would entail, then climate change ranks as
a serious economic, social, and ecological threat. So what is being done?

At present, not much. For starters, Israel is a very small country, so its ability to influence global climate is extremely limited. Tal says that the Israeli government’s inaction on climate change reflects “a cynical disregard for the severity of global warming,” but one could just as easily argue that Israel has so little effect on the global climate that its very limited resources could better be spent elsewhere.

Second, in a twist of international politics, Israel got classed as a “developing nation” for climate change purposes, rather than a “developed nation,” meaning it is exempt from most binding obligations. (The reasons for the designation included population increases due to former-Soviet immigration, and Israel’s long-term water shortage.) As a result, climate change has not been high on Israel’s priority list, both because there’s not much Israel can do about it, and because there are other things to worry about.

Of course, everyone who’s been to Israel knows about the ever-present dudei shemesh, or solar heaters, that warm up the hot water even in upscale Israeli homes, not to mention JNF’s large, monoculture pine forests. And, Tal says, “the Israeli government and some businesses have taken small steps toward promoting clean energy.” But public interest and understanding in Israel remain quite low. A 2006 national survey of environmental literacy among high school students showed that fewer than half of the students even knew what caused global warming in the first place. (Then again, the same might be said of the current American president.) Even those Israelis who are “green” have many other environmental issues to worry about — loss of open space, air and water pollution, and the lack of proper waste management, to name just a few. As a result, Tal said, “few of the Ministry of Environment’s operational recommendations involve concrete measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

But the United States is a different story. Unlike Israel, America is big enough to make a difference on its own: The United States is the world’s leading generator of greenhouse gases, and practically invented the “think big” lifestyle that got us in this mess to begin with. Yet, as is well known, America’s federal government has sat on the climate change sidelines, refused to sign onto the Kyoto Protocol, which would set binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions, and dithered over the uncertainties of exactly how bad climate change will be.

The result? Israel’s friends in America are, ironically, the ones who are damaging its long-term economic future.

In the Jewish community, climate change is often seen as a pressing problem, but rarely is the intersection with Israel mentioned. The Jewish community tends to be more liberal than average Americans, and environmental issues are no exception. Barbara Lerman-Golomb, executive director of the Coalition on the Environment in Jewish Life (COEJL), says that “most Jews are aware of the issues and problems of global warming as it relates to the world at large.” But understanding of the problem as it relates to Israel specifically is still quite limited, and, Golomb explains, Jews tend to view environmental issues as a subset of “social action and tikkun olam,” not concern for Israel.

Surely this makes sense ideologically -- as Golomb says, “global warming poses an imminent, massive threat that will likely affect all creation,” not just the land of Israel. But some activists are beginning to wonder whether the particular economic and ecological effects on Israel should cause the Jewish community to rethink its priorities around climate change, whether they are environmentalists or not.

“The fight against climate change is essential to Israel’s food security and water security,” says Noam Dolgin, chairperson of the Green Zionist Alliance (GZA), an environmentalist party to the Zionist Congress. “The conventional wisdom is that the next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, and climate change will lead to major changes in water patterns and distribution.”

Dolgin notes that ecological issues such as desertification, coral bleaching, and climate patterns motivate many in the environmental movement, “fighting climate change is also critical from a security point of view.” According to Dolgin, the GZA is working with the JNF and other organizations to educate the Jewish community about these issues.

Of course, some might claim that fighting climate change in the name of Israel is a case of misplaced priorities — even a ploy. But this is what coalition politics is all about: finding common ground on issues of overlapping interest. So what if Greens are worried about owls, and Blue-and-Whites about Israeli economic security? The science is the science, and the two groups have common cause to change America’s (lack of) climate policy — if they choose to do it.

Anyway, as Dolgin notes, “people are mobilized by issues that play out close to home, and this is a land that we have deep emotional and spiritual connections toward. As Jews, we have a general moral obligation to preserve the world, but we have a specific moral obligation to preserve Israel.”


The irony — and the opportunity — is that Israel, which currently stands to lose so much as a result of climate change, could actually stand to gain. Obviously, reducing global fossil-fuel use, to the extent it depletes the riches of countries hostile to Israel, would help shift the balance of power in the Middle East a bit more in Israel’s favor. But more importantly, Israel could actually make money if climate change became a serious global priority, for two reasons. First, as a leader in creating “green technologies,” Israel could reap huge economic benefits as these technologies gain wider adoption. And second, Israel’s afforestation programs could count as carbon sequestration credits under a climate change emissions trading system. In other words — those solar heaters and JNF trees really could add up.

First there is all that technology. As a tiny, but smart, country geographically isolated from other Western nations, Israel has figured out the way to “make it” economically is not through exporting oranges but by researching and developing new technologies. (The Haifa-based Technion Institute has recently taken to running advertisements in the New York Times proclaiming “The Brainpower of Its People” to be “Israel’s Only Natural Resource.”) Whether it’s Warren Buffet’s $4 billion investment in the Israeli tool manufacturer Iscar, or the global successes of Mirabilis/ICQ (the folks who helped bring you the instant message) and other Internet businesses, Israel’s economic success depends on turning those smart Jewish brains into dollars. The same is true in environmental technologies — all those solar panels could really be worth something, if Israeli businesses were provided the incentives to improve and develop them. “Solar power plants in Southern California rely on clean-energy technology developed in Jerusalem,” says Tal, adding that “the Israeli corporation Ormat has emerged as a world leader in geothermal energy technologies.” But the financial upside is just beginning to be known.

Making money from environmental technology is not a new idea. Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter wrote about it as early as 1991, in an enormously influential Scientific American article entitled “America’s Green Strategy,” and in books like Green and Competitive. The argument: we’re going to need these technologies, so the countries and companies that develop them first stand to make a lot of money.

More recently, Yale Law Professor Daniel C. Esty showed how large companies are already reaping economic benefits from environmental innovation in of Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage, written with consultant Andrew Winston. “The key to success in environmental protection is innovation and technology development,” Esty tells AJL. “In this regard, technology development to provide greater energy efficiency, new non-fossil fuel energy sources, and perhaps carbon capture will all be in great demand. Israel could well be a leader in this changed world — with its educated workforce, capacity to drive innovation, and its technical strength.”

In other words, as a technology leader with a particular interest in climate change, Israel could help the warmer world bloom — if we in America would stop kidding around about the problem.

A second way Israel could actually profit from a pro-active climate change policy is as familiar as those ubiquitous blue and white JNF boxes: planting trees. Under the Framework Convention for Climate Change, countries and companies can trade emissions (i.e., putting carbon dioxide into the air with cars and factories) for credits (i.e., taking it out). If emissions trading becomes a reality, those JNF forests, which all take CO2 out of the atmosphere, suddenly become worth money — a fact not lost on the JNF itself, which, according to the GZA’s Dolgin, has begun investigating the possibility of incorporating its tree-planting efforts into “carbon-neutrality” programs.

The potential is enormous. Consider the economic and environmental boon for Israel if every Jewish organization, synagogue, and conference pledged to be carbon neutral, and offset its carbon use by buying carbon credits from Israel. Companies, conferences, even vacation spots are now offering “carbon offsets” which balance the carbon emitted by airplanes, hotels, and paper factories — why not ask all synagogues, camps, and Jewish organizations to become “carbon neutral” and direct their eco-dollars to Israel? Everyone would win.

Third, Israel could derive significant carbon credits from its solar and wind power plants, which count as carbon reduction credits when they replace CO2-emitting facilities. These are assets Israel already possesses, but, like the risks it faces from climate change, they are little known among Israel’s friends in America — or, for that matter, in Israel itself. Recently, for example, Israeli Minister of Infrastructure Benyamin Ben-Eliezer announced plans for a huge solar power plant in the Negev. Great news — except that he didn’t even mention the possible economic windfall of using the plant to obtain carbon-reduction credits. Then again, with Prince Charles canceling ski trips to reduce his “carbon footprint,” maybe the ignorance is beginning to give way — to dollar signs in the eyes.

All of these economic benefits depend on a serious, worldwide effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — a campaign opposed only by the United States. Imagine if Israel’s friends in America understood climate change not as a peripheral political or spiritual issue, but as a serious economic and security threat to the Jewish state — and helped persuade the United States to finally catch up to the rest of the Western world, ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and commit to reducing our wasteful emissions. A major vulnerability could become a serious economic asset.

For now, however, the American Jewish community’s understanding of climate change remains at a very early stage: few know how it will affect Israel, and some don’t see it as a “Jewish” issue at all. But in Israel, it’s perhaps worth noting that Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth had a different title in Hebrew: Emet Matridah — The Truth That Terrifies.

This article is part of our larger package, the AJL Green List.

-- Text by Jay Michaelson / Photo by Justin Horrocks
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