Greetings from our little corner of the Eastern Mediterranean.
I live in a small kibbutz, in a hyper-arid desert valley on the borders of Israel and Jordan near the Gulf of Eilat, where I am researching both the implications of climate change for the region and how its inhabitants are beginning to address the issue.
GROWING CLIMATE CHANGE IMPACTS
Climate change is beginning to make its presence felt here. In the last decade, local residents in our valley have seen significantly fewer rain events. We now have a miniscule 16 mm rainfall per annum. Local divers cannot fail to notice that the region’s most sensitive eco-system, the Red Sea coral, is bleaching.
The effects are also being felt in the centre of the country as the desert belt marches rapidly northwards encroaching on the Mediterranean biome. A temperature rise of 1.5°C is predicted to result in the desert moving between 300-500 km northwards with huge implications for the majority of the Israeli population which lives in this fertile region.
Climate change pays no attention to the fiercely fought over national boundaries in the region. A half metre rise in sea level will cause flooding in Tel Aviv’s residential areas and damage power plants and other coastal infrastructure. It will inundate the Gaza Strip and its already highly polluted groundwater aquifer and sole water source. And it will overwhelm the low-lying Nile Delta in Egypt causing around 1.5 million environmental refugees (IPCC/ Friends of the Earth Middle East figures).
Meanwhile, the impact of less predictable weather patterns will clearly affect farmers across the region (2% of the Israeli population, but 17% of both the Palestinian and Jordanian populations).
Drinking water is also an urgent transboundary issue, and 2008 is another serious drought year in the region. All of Israel’s aquifers are at their red lines and Israel’s main freshwater reservoir, the Sea of Galilee, has fallen to a point beyond which pumping will threaten the ecological integrity of the lake. The Palestinian Authority is also sounding the alarm about a severe water crisis in the West Bank. Human rights organisation B’Tselem blames both the drought and Israel, which essentially controls the water supply in the West Bank, for this parlous situation. Meanwhile in Amman, Jordan, most households only have water in the taps one day a week.
CLIMATE CHANGE DENIAL IN ISRAEL
Considering all this, it is no surprise that climate change is described as a ‘threat multiplier’ in this already fragile region. Frankly you can begin to understand why the battle-weary policymakers and the general public in Israel would rather not think about this new threat to the Promised Land.
To underline this, several months ago, at my university, eminent climatologist Pinhas Alpert presented his latest predictions for the Fertile Crescent region, the “cradle of civilization”, undertaken with the Meteorological Research Institute in Tsukuba, Japan. We watched as the geographical area, which stretches from the Nile to the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, shriveled and disappeared with only a modest temperature rise of 2.6°C by the end of the century. However, the gathered hydrologists, agronomists and ecologists merely nodded sagely, asking technical questions about models rather than running from the room screaming which was perhaps a more appropriate response.
At the end of 2007, I undertook some preliminary survey research on Israeli perceptions of climate change. The results suggested that in fact Israelis from across the country, from sophisticated Tel Aviv to Arab villages in the Galilee, are aware of climate change. They are also concerned about it, although not quite yet concerned enough to do anything . The most common responses ranged from ‘Israel’s emissions are so small (the US emits as much in three days as Israel does in a whole year) what difference can we make’, to ‘We have more important urgent things to worry about’.
Much of Israel’s culture of climate denial comes from the intense way in which life is experienced here. Whilst proffering to love this country, Israeli concern for environmental issues and the environment in general are considered of relatively low importance due to the bigger distraction of the conflict.
Confronted with the more tangible sense of threat by a ‘terror’ attack or the incessant and somewhat obsessive discussion on the streets as to whether Ahmadnijad will drop the bomb and obliterate Israel altogether, it is perhaps understandable that the more diffuse and distant threat of climate change does not register highly on Israeli risk-o-meters.
Israelis are regularly bombarded by ‘disaster’ images. As has been found in research elsewhere, disaster imagery of climate change is most likely provokes feelings of powerlessness rather than the desire to take action. Compounded with this is the fact that Israelis are in general pretty fatalistic. An attitude widely heard in religious communities in both Israel and Palestine was that ‘If this is God’s will, so be it’.
A further aspect of Israeli climate denial, argued by Alpert and supported by my own research, is that there is a relatively high number of climate skeptics in Israel such as astrophysicist Nir Shaviv who still persists with his Cosmic Ray theory despite it being roundly rebutted by the scientific community. A personal friend at the Israel Meteorological Service is yet to be convinced of the anthropogenic causes. Alpert argues that climate skepticism in Israel represents a Jewish trait based on traditions of Jewish critical learning – to constantly dispute and find alternative explanations. This, I think, is a polite way of saying that Israelis in general are an argumentative and contrary bunch.
LITTLE AWARENESS OF EMISSIONS
In the public arena, most people appear to connect climate change with feel-good events such as Live Earth and Earth Hour, in which Tel Aviv participated. Such events may have begun to raise consciousness around energy efficiency in Israel, yet popular trends here still lag several years behind Europe and the USA. Apart from the religious community, post-materialist values are few and far between. This summer’s water crisis may go someway towards raising awareness about resource conservation. I was overjoyed yesterday to see a man rebuking his neighbour for watering his garden in the middle of the day. This simply never happens here.
The truth is that Israelis can make a difference. Israel ranks in the top 25 for per capita CO2 emissions – above most Western European countries – and this is linked to use of electrical appliances: a whopping 40% of total electricity output in summer is expended on the arctic blast of the air conditioners in pretty much every home, business or public building. One Tel Aviv resident told me that air conditioners used to be few and far between. Today people have them on simply to drown out the constant hum of their neighbours’ units. The need for air-conditioning is also a function of poor building design and construction and cheap building materials.
Other culprits include high private transport use and, increasingly, the high energy cost of desalinating Mediterranean seawater as a means to allay the water crisis. Even if the government were willing to implement a carbon tax or other incentive to increase energy and water efficiency, it is clear that grassroots campaigns are necessary to shift Israeli self-perception from that of ‘consumers entitled to squander limitless resources’ to that of ‘responsible citizens averting ecological disaster both locally and regionally’.
Astoundingly Israel was classified as a non-Annex 1 country under the Kyoto Protocol. This means it has no obligation to reduce or even stabilise its emissions. The Israeli government had effectively ignored the issue with only the odd law to set standards for electrical appliances and laughable voluntary green building standards.
LOOKING TO THE CORPORATIONS FOR ACTION
A cursory glance at the Israeli media coverage of climate change actually shows that its main focus appears to be on Israeli scientists doing cutting edge research to find solutions and Israeli entrepreneurs promoting renewable energy. Israel loves trumpeting its cutting edge scientists and entrepreneurs to the world, and this may also contribute to a more pronounced sense of optimism and faith in scientists to solve the problem than may be found elsewhere.
As a non-Annex 1 country, Israel’s biggest corporations have done very well as recipients of Clean Development Mechanism financing. This includes the bromide and magnesium factories partially responsible for destroying the Dead Sea as well as Israel’s sole cement works and paper mills
The rise in oil prices, the changing discourse in the US to address energy independence and Israeli entrepreneurs sensing a new market have certainly led to the business community waking up. When Al Gore addressed a renewable energy conference in Tel Aviv this May, all sorts of unlikely business leaders were turning up and it certainly wasn’t to worry about the coral reefs.
These include Shai Agassi, a Silicon Valley billionaire who wants Israel to be a testing ground for the electric car; the Israel Corporation, the huge chemicals multinational, which announced its intention to become an “ambitious and leading player in the alternative energy market”; and Israeli-born Arnold Goldman, whose company Luz II is developing a heliostat system for generating solar energy. Another company, Solel, is already building solar thermal power plants worldwide. These companies would dearly love to begin solar energy production in Israel, with its high levels of solar irradiance, but have faced a raft of bureaucratic delays and inadequate feed-in tariffs.
Thus it was no surprise that Binyamin Ben Eliezer, Minister of National Infrastructures, received an unenthusiastic reception at the same conference when he promised that, within the next 15-20 years, renewable energy would make up 20% of Israel’s energy mix. This may seem a fair amount but there are grounds for skepticism. Israel currently produces less than 0.2% from renewables and has already failed to meet its 2% renewable energy target for 2007.
Yet, at the same time, the minister approved a new coal-fired power station in Ashkelon to appease the powerful union of the Israel Electric Company (IEC), which has brought the country to a standstill on several occasions. The IEC, in its wisdom, has displayed a complete lack of vision and investment in renewable energy, mainly because of the low cost of imported coal from Colombia, Indonesia and Australia. At the public hearing about Ashkelon coal-fired plant a few months ago, it soon became clear that the IEC planned to go ahead whatever: it had already ordered the turbines.
Finally, to end on a more positive note, there is some political movement. Some say that the Israeli government’s renewed interest in negotiating with its water-richer neighbour, Syria, could be connected with concern over water scarcity.
Israel has a burgeoning Permaculture movement, active student environmental groups and at least three Green Parties. The latest, the Green Movement, promotes a progressive environmental and social justice agenda and as a protest vote against Israel’s positively awful current crop of politicians, is likely to win seats at the next election.
For more information:
Climate for change, Haaretz, Lucy Michaels, May 25th 2008 link..
Climate Change: A New Threat to Middle East Security EcoPeace / Friends of the Earth Middle East link…
Arava Institute for Environmental Studies – A peace-building and environmental leadership programme for students from Israel, Palestine, Jordan and internationally which focuses on shared regional environmental problems. www.arava.org
Bustan Qaraaqa permaculture project (The Tortoise Garden) in Bethlehem is part of the Eco-Alternative Guesthouse project link..