Anticipated droughts and floods in Africa will likely leave many seeking refuge in nearby Israel, says BGU professor.

As sea levels climb and extreme weather events intensify, climate change will not only impact global ecology, but will also pose a threat national security, according to a report released by the US Defense Department on Monday.

“In our defense strategy, we refer to climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ because it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today – from infectious disease to terrorism,” US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel wrote in the report’s introduction.

“We are already beginning to see some of these impacts.”

The report presented a “2014 Climate Change Adaptation Road Map,” a comprehensive study on how the Pentagon can alleviate future events like food and water shortages, pandemic diseases, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters. While much uncertainty remains as to future climate projections, it is possible to reduce long-term damage through planning and risk mitigation, Hagel stressed.

“A changing climate will have real impacts on our military and the way it executes its missions,” the defense secretary said.

Hagel emphasized the importance of both internal and cross-border cooperation on the subject – to share tools and help build international capacity to respond. Politics must not create an obstacle with advancing plans, and the armed forces need to prepare to fight “a wide range of possible threats,” the defense secretary added.

“Climate change is a global problem,” he said.

“Its impacts do not respect national borders. No nation can deal with it alone.”

In its road map, the Defense Department identified three goals toward adapting to climate change: identifying and assessing the effects of climate change on the department, integrating climate change considerations and managing associated risks, and collaborating with internal and external stakeholders.

The report determined that the climate change phenomena likely to affect the department’s operations include rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, increasing frequency or intensity of extreme weather events and rising sea levels.

These factors may increase the need for defense support of civil authorities and lead to a greater demand for disaster relief overseas, according to the report.

With these factors in mind, the report called upon the Defense Department to test its abilities to operate in changed environments, including the readiness of individual units or weapon systems to function, and the capability of military infrastructure to withstand flooding and other challenges.

Collaboration with internal and external stakeholders on climate change will be critical, the report stressed. The Defense Department alone “cannot effectively assess its vulnerabilities and implement adaptive responses at its installations if neighbors and stakeholders are not part of the process,” the authors concluded.

Examining how some of the conclusions drawn in the report might impact Israel, Prof. Alon Tal of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research pointed to a November 2013 statement made by Hagel, included within the text of the report.

“I agree with the secretary’s underlying assumption that: ‘Climate change does not directly cause conflict but it can significantly add to the instability, hunger and conflict,’” Tal told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. “That does seem to be the case in Israel and even more so among its neighbors.”

For example, the acute water shortages in the Middle East – a combination of mismanagement and hyper-population growth, exacerbated by drought – can “easily be translated into political instability,” Tal argued.

Displaced farmers in Syria simply could not continue to produce food without irrigation water, a frustration that was manifested in unrest that led to the extremism of today, he explained.

“It surely serves as a cautionary tale for Jordan, Egypt, and even Lebanon,” Tal said.

Due to the shift to desalination for drinking water and recycled wastewater in agriculture, Israeli society is much less dependent on rainfall, Tal continued.

“Indeed, the shift to desalination, which provides the vast majority of Israeli municipal water supply today, can be seen as the kind of climate change adaptive measure that the Defense Department report is talking about,” he said.

A study published in the Nature Communications journal earlier this month even indicated that certain plant communities in Israel may actually be able to cope with climate change.

Led by Dr. Katja Tielbörger of the University of Tübingen in Germany – and with the participation of Prof. Marcelo Sternberg of Tel Aviv University and Dr. Claus Holzapfel of Rutgers University – a multinational team of researchers found that after nine years of rainfall manipulations, Israeli vegetation did not suffer from experimental droughts.

Based on the study, Tielbörger concluded that “the going hypothesis that all arid regions will react strongly to climate change needs to be amended.”

Nonetheless, Israel is only producing less than 45 percent of its calorie intake at home, which makes the country vulnerable to shifts in food markets outside of Israel, Tal cautioned. In addition, the country is becoming more vulnerable to the negative consequences of climate change as the country’s population continually increases, he said.

“As the population grows and becomes completely dependent on food imports, which will be directly affected by the climatic vicissitudes anticipated, it will be more difficult to respond to crises,” he said.

Stressing that Israel has largely remained “trapped in its myopic paradigms,” Tal added that with the exception of desalination, very little planning for future climate change challenges has occurred here.

An additional result of climate change mentioned, by both the Defense Department report and Tal, is the issue of climate refugees.

In a University of Haifa report submitted to the Environmental Protection Ministry in May 2012 by Prof. Arnon Soffer, the authors detailed how the lack of water, global warming and sea level surges will likely prompt migration movements to escape such phenomena.

Soffer and his colleagues described how Israel may need to secure its borders with impassable barriers, including “sea fences” along its waters.

“Given its proximity to Africa, Israel is surely in the ‘front line’ for the climate refugees which the anticipated droughts and floods in Africa will produce,” Tal said. “And while building a tall fence on the Sinai border surely made sense, it’s not clear that Israel has a coherent refugee policy or way of acting preemptively in response to the human deluge.”