By Jay Michaelson
February 7, 2012

1. It’s getting hot in here

Israel has a lot to worry about. Nuclear threats from Iran, a seemingly intractable stalemate with the Palestinians, the uncertainties of the year-old Arab Spring. But according to a small but growing consensus of scientists and environmentalists, there’s another looming crisis to add to the list: climate change.

Indeed, 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.” (And you thought the summer hamsin couldn’t get more extreme.) That’s deeply worrying news, obviously, for a country perched on the edge of a desert, and with water scarcity already a serious environmental – and political – issue.

According to studies by the Israeli Union for Environmental Defense, Israel’s leading environmental advocacy group, the effects will be particularly pronounced 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.

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 Beersheva. 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.

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 ecotones 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 – the Israeli government estimates that the Mediterranean sea level will rise anywhere from 12 to 88 centimeters. (Ironic that while oil company dollars can delude the U.S. Congress into thinking there may not really be climate change, they can’t buy off Israel.) But 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.

2. Making the Desert Bloom, 2.0

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?

Well, geo-politically speaking, Israel is a very small country, so its ability to influence global climate is extremely limited. Unlike in the U.S., decreased consumption in Israel won’t make much of a global difference. Moreover, because of in a twist of international politics, Israel is classed as a “developing nation” for climate change purposes, rather than a “developed nation,” meaning it is exempt from most binding obligations. So there is little political pressure to change habits.

But – and here I part company with my liberal friends to take a seat with some unlikely libertarian allies – the private sector is leading the way.

Israel is far, far ahead of the U.S. in developing green technologies. The “startup nation,” as it has been dubbed, is a world leader in solar technology, irrigation technology, and clean energy technology, and may roll out an electric car grid within the next few years. This is part of a wider phenomenon, of course; 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. Whether it’s Warren Buffett’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 and dudei shemesh (solar water heaters, ubiquitous in Israel) have turned into a serious economic strategy.

Another way Israel could actually profit from a pro-active climate change policy is as familiar as those blue and white tzedakah 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 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… if only the U.S. would play.

3. Climate Change is a Jewish Issue

The inconvenient truth is that Israel’s Green Miracle will not be enough to save it without help from Uncle America. Unlike Israel, America is big enough to make a difference on its own: we’re the world’s leading generator of greenhouse gases, after all. Unfortunately, the Republican party in the U.S., funded by the fossil fuel industry, has successfully branded the conservative “cap and trade” policy, which would allow the free trade of carbon credits, as some kind of socialist debacle. As exhaustively detailed in books such as Eric Pooley’s The Climate War, Naomi Oreskes & Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt, and James Hoogan’s Climate Cover-Up, we in America have now had twenty years of concerted industry lobbying to muddy the clear scientific water on climate change. And so we have done nothing. (Please read those books, by the way, if you have any doubt that climate change is real and that there is a concerted lobbying attempt to convince you that it isn’t.)

The result? Israel’s purported friends in America – especially those who subsidize the Republican party, like William Kristol and Sheldeon Adelman – are damaging its long-term economic and political future. Isn’t it ironic?

In the Jewish community, climate change is often seen as a pressing problem, but rarely is the intersection with Israel mentioned. But it should be. Food prices were the ‘invisible hand’ that brought down Arab dictators, and food security and water security are pressing 21st century issues for Israel. Imagine if the 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 strategic 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 worthy of note that Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” had a different title in Hebrew: Emet Matridah – “The Truth That Terrifies.”

Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in American Jewish Life magazine.