Israel is also fated to suffer more and more high-temperature episodes but even its targets are inadequate and the hard-right isn’t even acknowledging climate change, let alone thinking how to mitigate it

David Rosenberg

Jul 19, 2023

As intolerably hot as it’s felt this past week, Israel has gotten off lightly. 

Temperatures here been positively balmy compared to places like Phoenix, which is on its 18th day of temperatures 43 degrees Celsius and above (110 Fahrenheit and counting), reportedly killing at least 12 people so far, and it’s expected to be hotter next week. A town in northwest China recorded temperatures of more than 52 Celsius (126F) on Sunday. Meteorologists say Europe’s two-year-old record for the highest temperature ever (48.8 degrees, 119.8F) may be broken on the Italian island of Sardinia in the next few days.

Enjoy Israel’s relatively temperate weather while you can. We may have escaped the worst this time around, but we are destined for more frequent and more severe heat waves in the future as an impact of climate change.

In a recent study published in npj Climate and Atmospheric Science, Nikolaos Christidis, Dann Mitchell and Peter A. Stott warned that the Mediterranean and Middle East region would be experiencing increasing numbers of extreme heat waves,which last longer, over the coming decades.

The good news, such as it is, is that days when temperatures exceed 50 degrees will remain “nearly impossible” in Israel between now and 2050; the bad news is that days when they exceed 45 degrees will go from “rare” today to “common” by mid-century. Heat waves are destined to be part of the new normal for Israel – not every day, but more frequent than we’re used to. They pose not only a health risk, but will begin to have an increasing impact on economic activity. 

Crops will be destroyed every time temperatures soar, and some may no longer be able to grow at all. Outdoor work will have to be suspended frequently, as will sports and cultural events. Electric power networks will come under increased pressure as we saw during a temperature spike in June that forced Israel Electric Corp. to cut power to some 260,000 households as well as desalination plants. Computer systems are at risk of collapse, and road and rail infrastructure is already subject to cracking, buckling and melting.

Israel has never undertaken a comprehensive study of the economic impact of heat waves and the other fallouts of climate change. But there have been global studies that can serve as something of a guide to what Israel can expect going forward. 

To a large degree, they depend on how we respond to the climate change challenge – the three big options being to do basically nothing, to act reactively to crises, or to pursue consistent policies over the long-term.

The Central Banks and Supervisors Network for Greening the Financial System, or NGFS, sets out a host of scenarios for the planet. If governments pursue an orderly transition toward net zero greenhouse gas emissions, the hit to global gross domestic product reaches 3 percent in 2030, over 4 percent mid-century and shrinking back to 3 percent by 2100.

That looks pretty painful, but it is actually the mildest of the possible outcomes.

Delaying the transition to net-zero widens the global GDP drop to 5.3 percent in 2030, close to 6 percent in 2050 and narrowing to 4 percent in 2100, according to that report. 

If current policies continue, in other words, if nothing is done to halt significant warming, the cost to our generation is just 2.5 percent. The ones who would feel the economic pain are the next generations: Lost global GDP will grow to 7.8 percent in 2050 and close to 20 percent in 2100.

Mitigating climate change will impose heavy costs, too, as the world transits from smoke-belching fossil fuels to renewables, assuming it does. Those costs are run up earlier while the payback only emerges later. But the reason that Scenario 3 (we do nothing, world warms) is so costly is that the more we dither and do nothing to mitigate climate change, the worse the environmental destruction will be.

Fortunately, fighting climate change is not all about higher costs, but about efficiencies as well. For instance, energy consumption needs to be reduced, and from some point, the cost of green energy will fall below the cost of extracting and distributing fossil fuels. Thus, the NGFS forecasts show the world economy would be best off if it chooses to fight climate change rather than delay or do nothing.

Israel in the Anthropocene 

Compared to the rest of the world, Israel enters the Anthropocene, the geological age during which human activity is the dominant influence on climate and the environment, with some advantages, not only disadvantages.

The disadvantages start with the fact that it is one of the most climate change-vulnerable areas of the world, with one foot in the Mediterranean basin and another in the Middle East. Also, Israel’s population is growing quickly, with intense demand for more and more housing and infrastructure. The government is way behind its developed-country peers in even setting targets to combat climate change, let alone implementing policies: If you had to choose which of the three roads described by the NGFS Israel is traveling, it would be at best “delayed transition” and at worst “current policies.”

Israel’s advantages are fewer, but they could prove critical. Since we are a high-tech and service-oriented economy, we are less at risk of a big wave of job losses in heavy industry that will inevitably result in the move away from fossil fuels. Most importantly, climate change could actually be a boost to the economy because Israel’s high-tech skills should enable it to develop and commercialize the technologies needed to reduce greenhouse emissions and cope with the fallout of climate change.

Israel has an enviable record in developing relevant technology, whether it be drip irrigation, desalination or solar power. As the Startup Nation Policy Institute notes, in the first quarter of this year Israel counted about 840 climate-tech companies and more than 60 active investors.

Unfortunately, Israel is far from leveraging this expertise. So far climate-tech doesn’t attract anywhere near the capital that sectors like fintech and cybertech do. Climate-tech companies’ share of Israel’s total tech investing is growing, but last year it captured just 10 percent.

Also, the current Netanyahu government seems determined to make things worse. It seems to share much the climate-change indifference, if not outright skepticism, of right-wing, populist governments around the world.

Most Israelis agree that climate change is a threat and are prepared (theoretically) to do their part to halt it, but the coalition’s base of right-wing voters and Haredim are less likely to think so than others. The government’s war with the high-tech sector over the judicial overhaul certainly won’t incline it to seek ways to foster the climate-tech sector.

It seems that some of us in Israel like it hot, or at least are prepared to live with it.