With the failure of collective action to prevent climate change, Israel will have to accept that unexpected extreme events will become much more common.
By Lucy Michaels

As the Carmel forest fires begin to die down, the public has inevitably begun to ask how the catastrophe happened, with accusatory fingers pointed at careless youths and negligent government officials. Playing the blame game, however, does not explain the whole story and also conveniently allows us to absolve our own role in this disaster.

Until recently, talk about climate change in Israel would elicit the standard reply that the country has more important things to worry about. That’s not surprising. Psychological research shows that in most of the developed world, climate change is perceived as a vague and distant threat, without real relevance to everyday life. Surveys conducted locally in late 2009, however, suggest Israelis are beginning to make a clear connection between the current water shortages being experienced and climate change.

Despite the growing public disquiet over another drought year, a burning-hot summer and the failure of the November rains to appear, the government’s plan is only to double the amount of desalinated water by 2013. That may help alleviate the immediate shortage, but it ignores the elephant in the room: Why have the last six years been drought years?

While Israel does have a highly variable climate, it is likely that global warming is either directly or indirectly responsible for the current drought, since it influences large atmospheric circulation patterns such as the Red Sea Trough. Researchers predict that Israel is only going to become more arid, as temperatures rise and rainfall decreases across the region. Such increased dry conditions, including a lengthening of the dry season, extreme hot weather days and heat waves, clearly raise the risk of forest fires, as woodland and brush become parched after months of no rain.

Researchers across Europe have noted that in recent years, forest fires have been occurring with increased frequency outside the seasons and areas most prone to fires – all suggesting the influence of global warming. The increase in frequency of thunderstorms as a result of climate change also becomes important, as most forest fires are triggered by lightning. Forest fires, in themselves, also release thousands of tons of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, smoke, particulates and other compounds into the atmosphere, further exacerbating global warming.

If there were a direct connection between a country’s own greenhouse gas emissions and the immediate effects felt on its climate, we would have seen action by the major polluting countries a long time ago. But just because we are not directly experiencing the effects of our own emissions doesn’t make us less responsible for the outcome.

While the fires raging on the Carmel were apparently triggered by human hands, it is also clear that the potent interaction between human action, natural hazards such as droughts and floods, and anthropogenic global warming confronts us with terrifying new threats that we are woefully unprepared to deal with. Perhaps without the amplifying effects of global warming contributing to a prolonged drought, the Israeli government could have gotten away with systematic neglect of the fire service. As it was, these conditions came together to create the perfect conditions for a small spark to cause a conflagration that quickly spun out of control.

It was a similar story with Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Climatologists have argued that the intensity with which Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans can be attributed to the increased temperatures of the Gulf of Mexico caused by global warming. Nevertheless, that natural disaster only turned into a catastrophe because of the lack of basic preparedness and the inept management of the crisis.

Just in recent days, the Netanyahu government announced, to great fanfare, that it would invest NIS 2.2 billion in reducing Israel’s greenhouse gas emissions through the promotion of energy efficiency. While it is a considerable achievement that measures will actually be matched with an appropriate budget, the planned steps will nevertheless fall short of Israel’s modest 2020 emissions-reduction target, pledged during the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen last December.

While the government has promised further measures related to the promotion of green energy in the coming months, the limited policy measures are symbolic of the collective international failure to address climate change. That collective failure means that Israel will have to accept that these kinds of unexpected extreme events will become more and more common; the country will have to seriously invest in preparations for climate impacts as it does for military threats. This means properly funding firefighting services and introducing integrated wildfire-management measures, as well as seriously anticipating other climate impacts, ranging from emerging infectious diseases to food shortages.

Israel now has a potent local and relevant image to associate with global warming. These join the plummeting water levels of the Kinneret, at their lowest for November since records began in 1929; rabbis praying for rain at the Western Wall last week; apples baking on the trees at the height of the August heat-wave, and now peach trees blossoming in December in the Golan; the astronomical price of fruit and vegetables; and the national butter shortage. As everything we previously took for granted begins to go topsy-turvy, perhaps now we can begin to have a serious conversation about climate change.

Lucy Michaels is a researcher on climate change communication at Ben-Gurion University.