The Decisive Decade for climate change is apace and Israel continues to pretend its business as usual despite our unique vulnerabilities to climate change

Forest fire on Mount Carmel, 2010
Forest fire on Mount Carmel, 2010, for which Israel proved unprepared Credit: Gil Eliahu

Yosef Gotlieb Mar. 22, 2021

As Israel embarks on its fourth election within two years, absent from the political campaigns and public discourse generally is any mention of strategic concerns that are just as threatening as the security ones that dominate the Israeli public’s attention.

The world as a whole is well into in a decisive decade concerning two interconnected crises that preceded the Covid-19 pandemic: the climate emergency and the race to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Such goals are necessary to adequately provide for a growing global population against the backdrop of resource scarcity, an increasingly degraded environment and widespread poverty. The goals were ratified by the UN in 2015 with the aim of achieving them by 2030.

This, then, is the decisive Decade of Action, not only regarding climate change (SD Goal 13), but a host of issues that threaten the future of our societies. Limited progress had been made in attaining sustainable development goals prior to the health emergency, but Covid-19 has pushed 71 million people into extreme poverty, two billion people have no form of social protection (such as income supports, subsidies, health insurance) against the effects of the pandemic, and access to food has been reduced for millions of others. Gains against poverty are posed to be reversed, including in middle- and high-income countries. Israel’s socioeconomic vulnerability has also been spotlighted by the crisis.

Rebuilding from the acute stage of the pandemic provides humanity with an opportunity to reorder priorities and align our socioeconomic systems to achieve resilience and sustainability. Yet, none of the political parties have placed these items prominently on the public agenda and the longer these issues remain sidelined, the more difficult it will be to contend with them.

Arguably this is true everywhere. But for all our military might, prominence on the world stage and renown as “start-up nation,” Israel is highly vulnerable to the looming threats and these perils have been eclipsed and given insufficient attention in policy and planning.

This is ironic given that the land we inhabit is resource-poor, including in water, and we are surrounded by deserts that continuously encroach. As a small country with few marketable resources and relatively little manufacturing, we do not play a key role in the global economy: With the exception of a few high tech and commercial branches that add little productive infrastructure and are not major sources of employment, we do not play a central role in global supply chains or markets. We are not food self-sufficient and we do not rank favorably in health, education and social services when compared to western and other countries with similar per capita GDP.

Israel’s poverty rates are particularly high when compared to the other OECD countries. Our system of governance is prone to gridlock and political machination and our democracy is under threat.

US Evergreen 747 supertanker sprays over an area in Ein Hod in the Carmel Forest in the outskirts of Haifa on December 5, 2010
US Evergreen 747 supertanker sprays over Ein Hod in the burning Carmel Forest, 2010Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP

We do have high levels of expertise in medicine, science, management, the humanities and other fields, but as the abysmal mismanagement of the pandemic showed, these capacities are currently suppressed by a governing class that excels at power politics and self-preservation, though little else.

Civil society organizations like Latet and Leket and research organizations such as the Taub Center have documented the myriad socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic on food security, poverty, bankruptcies and unemployment in Israel. The OECD described the country’s vulnerability in terms of inequality among municipalities in its 2020 country report. That inequality became dramatically apparent in disease hotspots like Jerusalem and the Arab municipalities where high rates of poverty and overcrowded housing have long been ignored.

Food security (SD Goal 2), adequate housing and sustainable communities (Goal 11), reducing inequalities (Goal 10), improving healthcare (Goal 3) and education (Goal 4) are among the seventeen SDGs adopted at an international conference in 2012. Israel is a signatory of the convention, endorsed by then Environment Minister Gilad Erdan in a statement in which he acknowledged the “flashing red lights” signaling that the world as a whole is “fast approaching the tipping point.” This requires us “to stop, to reconsider our route, to change direction.” He noted that humanity was at a “historic crossroads” and stressed the need to a “new economic paradigm” aimed at “achieving sustainable development” or a “gloomy future awaits us.”

That recognition was voiced in June 2012, nearly nine years ago.

Since the SDGs were launched, the climate emergency has accelerated. Average temperatures across the world from 2010-2019 were the highest on record: 2020 tied with 2016 for the hottest years, and with 30 tropical storms and 13 hurricanes, 2020 saw the most Atlantic cyclones known to date. Mega-storms were also felt with devastating effects in the southern hemisphere. Last year the U.S. alone experienced an unprecedented 22 weather or climate disasters, each causing at least one billion dollars in damages, including hurricanes and other storms, wildfires and drought that incurred a cumulative $95 billion in losses. Extensive floods took place in China, India and Pakistan, while wildfires swept through Australia and the western U.S. Immense stretches of tundra across Siberia and into the Artic circle burned, unleashing large amounts of greenhouse gases.

Israel is not immune to these trends. Our winters are shortening and rain patterns are changing, characterized by brief downpours that overwhelm our drainage systems and cause flooding. On Sept 4, 2020 Jerusalem and Eilat had the highest temperatures ever recorded, and a year earlier, Israel had its most intense sandstorm ever documented. Wildfires are occurring with increasing frequency. Climate projections for changing conditions are not encouraging.

No single event can be firmly linked to climate change: scientists look at trends. But the trends being observed are destabilizing and given ever-higher greenhouse gas emissions, global warming along with other aspects of human-induced changes to our environment – deforestation, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, ambient pollution on land, in the air and the sea, among others – such impacts will continue to spread and complicate efforts to reduce poverty and inequality. This is as true in Israel as anywhere else.

Weapons systems and sophisticated cybertechnology will not reduce the impacts of these strategic threats to Israel. Our financial vitality and lively commerce can offer no protection against future shocks affecting life’s basics: water, food, public health and yes, weather and climate.

Nor can we forge a path to resilience that is separate from the rest of the world. While the success of Israel’s vaccination campaign provides us a temporary buffer against the pandemic, as long as the majority of the global population remains exposed, we too are unprotected from this and future zoonotic diseases.

Similarly, containing the increasingly devastating impacts of climate change and environmental degradation requires global cooperation (SDG 17): The effects will be damning everywhere unless all societies pull their weight. The same holds true for poverty and inequality, within our society and elsewhere: Unless these are addressed and eliminated, social unrest, political conflict and refugee crises will be the order of the day.

As Gilad Erdan stated nine years ago, a new paradigm is needed, one that pivots society at large – in Israel too – away from a consumerist, wasteful, carbon-based economy that degrades our scarce resources and rewards a few grandly while leaving others behind. The new global discourse promotes a regenerative economy based on circularity, renewable energy, environmental stewardship and reducing the gaps between the haves and the haves-not. Those are the planks than should be central to the platform of any group concerned with insuring Israel’s welfare for future generations.

These strategic challenges must be placed at the top of the new government’s agenda, particularly when rebuilding following the pandemic, although none of the existing political parties or leaders seem to have grasped this. That leaves it up to the public, civil society, enlightened businesses and anyone else concerned with Israel’s long-term survival and well-being to hammer home the message: This is the decisive Decade of Action.

Dr. Yosef Gotlieb, an international development and climate adaptation specialist, served as the co-Principal Investigator of the Integrated Program on the Central American Dry Corridor at the University of Costa Rica and is on the faculty of the David Yellin College of Education.