Desertification in the region has provided fertile ground for the rise of extremists such as ISIS, postulates leading Israeli geostrategist Arnon Soffer.
By Ruth Schuster | Feb. 11, 2015

Climate change deniers received a stunning blow this year from none other than Pope Francis, who announced a papal encyclical calling for action on global warming in 2015. But even if the world’s billion-plus faithful heed him, stop flying in planes and start walking to work, global warming will continue to gain traction. And the forecast for the Middle East is frightening: It will be hotter, drier and probably more dangerous as burgeoning populations struggle over dwindling resources, warns geostrategist Arnon Soffer, professor emeritus from the University of Haifa.

Soffer declines to look more than 20 years into the future on the grounds of pointlessness: Who, for instance, foresaw the Holocaust, which changed world history? Though when pressed to peer into a more distant future, he does point out that if global warming continues on its present trajectory, life in the Middle East and possibly the planet as a whole could become unsustainable for humans: We will fry.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for one predicts that unless humanity takes drastic action to amend its climate-changing ways, the average global temperature will rise by 11.5 degrees by the year 2100. (If humanity does take drastic action, the EPA projects a temperature increase of 2 degrees by that same year. )

Temperatures in the Middle East have not changed much yet, but they will; and the region is already experiencing weather extremes and, generally, an accelerated process of desertification.

Rain over the Negev may become more common, if anything – but it will evaporate faster.
Too hot to go outside

In the short run the natural life, flora and fauna, in the existing deserts will be less affected by climate change than plants in the semi-arid regions of the Middle East, which include Israel. Also, Middle Eastern plants and animals evolved to be “climate copers,” long used to wildly varying precipitation from year to year.

But, barring drastic action, within the lifetimes of today’s children, it will be impossible to leave shelter during the heat of the day, Soffer predicts. Being outside in the sun will be deadly. And plants and animals will face the same stresses as the region’s people.

Nor need we look 50 or 100 years into the future to see acute danger. The Middle East, says the professor, who among other things advises the Israel Defense Forces and government on demographics, is already reeling from the double whammy of climate change and growing populations. These factors are combining and are already exacerbating the struggle over resources – water, food and energy.

When people think about the world’s growing populations, they usually think of India and China. But demographically speaking, what has been happening in the Middle East has no precedent, Soffer notes. Take the population of Egypt: It doubled in the 30 years before 1958, and then by 1981 it doubled again. But a poor nation like Egypt can’t double its resources in less than 30 years: “It’s mission impossible. The entire Middle East is in a state of chaos,” says the professor. And meanwhile, the Blue Nile is running low on water.

Much of the Middle East is hot and arid to begin with, and it’s becoming even drier. Plus, many scientists predict further desertification as precipitation in the region becomes rarer, and its patterns change too.

Spreading deserts and ISIS

Forecasts for rain are a lot iffier than for temperature. Generally, the forecast for a warming world is actually for more precipitation, as the hotter climate causes more water to evaporate from the oceans – and what goes up must come down. But that rainfall won’t be evenly distributed around the world. Some countries used to heavy precipitation will apparently get more: Britain, for instance, is bracing for torrential rains.

Meanwhile, the entire Fertile Crescent has already been getting less and less rain. In Israel, the winter (rainy season) of 2013-2014 was the driest in its recorded history.

“Countries on the boundaries of the desert will be more desert-like and the desert countries will, within decades, become practically unfit for human habitation,” Soffer and Berkovsky predict in their book “Geopolitics and Climate Change in the Middle East.”

As less rain falls, aquifers will dwindle and the quality of their water will deteriorate. Desalination is all right for rich countries like Israel, where a weekend’s worth of water might cost as much as a cup of coffee, says Soffer drily. But that is no solution for the third world: “They can’t afford it,” he says bluntly. Nor is it even possible. “The entire amount of water the world desalinates in a year is about what Egypt needs in a month,” he explains. Ergo, desalination is not the answer.

And thus, as water becomes scarcer and its cost rises, the countries of the Middle East will increasingly resort to struggling over this diminishing resource. Will? Soffer says this has actually been happening for years. With all due respect to egalitarian cravings, he associates the Arab Spring and even the rise of the Islamic state, or ISIS, less with vile tyrants and more with climate change.

The “Mediterranean zone” is characterized by dry summers, which may last as long as nine months, and a wildly variable winter rainy season. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change actually predicts that as the planet warms, winter precipitation may slightly increase but overall, the soil will be drier because the hotter temperatures will drive more evaporation.

Israel is in the region that will undergo desertification, which the IPCC foresees encompassing North Africa, the countries around the Mediterranean basin, and swathes of Asia as well. Meanwhile, IPCC figures indicate that temperatures in the Middle East did not substantially change from 1901 to 1996, though if one includes Asia, the increase is 0.7 degrees Celsius. But the global trend is unarguable and the Middle East will not be spared. In any case, the average temperature isn’t the point, argues Soffer: We need to look at extreme events and this region is suffering those in spades.

“The winter of 2013-2014 brought us that crazy snowstorm,” Soffer recalls, adding that even Cairo was blanketed in white. Israeli highways were blocked by thousands of cars simply abandoned in snowdrifts, and whole towns were cut off for days. Some areas of Syria saw the heaviest snowfall in decades, which further exacerbated the misery of citizens already suffering from civil war.

Not one single drop of rain fell on the border of Syria and Turkey last winter, adds the professor, driving home the point. The villagers there have no desalination plants or water tankers.

“When it doesn’t rain and they have no water, like our patriarch Abraham – they have to migrate,” says Soffer. The upshot is that from North Africa to Syria, decades-old autocratic regimes have been weakened. Leadership voids were created he adds, and since nature abhors a void – enter ISIS, a magnetic force for people disenfranchised and growing increasingly desperate for solutions that their own governments cannot provide.