In addition to the Passover holiday, this Friday, will mark the 46th Earth Day celebrations. This year, April 22nd also marks the opening for signatures on the Climate Change Agreement reached in Paris last year. From April 22nd 2016, until April 21st 2017, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon invites the leaders of countries from all over the world to sign the historic document promising to cut CO2 emissions. In Israel, Earth Day and the signing of the Climate Change Agreement will be overshadowed by the recent tragic events in Jerusalem and/or the start of the spring holiday of freedom. As often happens in Israel we experience “the bitter with the sweet”.
Earth Day has always meant a great deal to me from the initial launch in 1970 when I marched with my Raleigh, North Carolina, 8th grade class in my first protest for the environment until today as Executive Director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. In preparation for this year’s Earth Day, I asked myself why Israelis should be concerned about the impact human beings are having on our planet as a whole. After all, we are already a hot, dry, small country, which has little impact on the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. I consulted with colleagues and came up with a list of 10 reasons why Israelis should be concerned about climate change.
- The acidification of the ocean caused by elevated atmospheric levels of CO2 means that the unique marine ecosystems in the Mediterranean and Eilat are projected to lose a third of their species.
- Whatever your opinion may be about the political future of the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon, for now Mt. Hermon is the only place, just a few hours from the center of the country, where Israelis can enjoy the wonders of winter snow and skiing. As average global temperatures rise, the snow will soon disappear from the winter landscape.
- Depending on which climate change model is used, some predict a rise of sea levels which could quickly eliminate our precious beaches. If this frightful prophecy does seem imminent, there are probably technical solutions we can learn from countries like Holland but they certainly won’t be cheap.
- As I said, we are already a hot, dry country. How much hotter and how much drier will we become? In studies done in the Arava region, both in Israel and in Jordan, we have seen a reduction in rainfall by 50% in the last 50 years. While we perhaps have solved our drinking water problem through desalination, less rainfall means increased water stress in Israel and for our neighbors.
- Climate change will bring less rain but more powerful storms and a lot more flooding. Israeli cities are unprepared as there is no separation of storm water and sewage water. Flood waters will overwhelm sewage networks. Wastewater treatment plants will direct the overflow to the sea causing beach closures and marine pollution. This overflow discharge into the sea could also impact desalination plants if the sewage discharge is near intake pipes, as recently happened at the Soreq Desalination Plant.
- While we will see more floods, we will also see more droughts. The entire ecosystem in Shaked (west Negev) has collapsed because of 2 consecutive years of drought. More ecosystems, especially in already arid and hyper-arid regions like the Negev and the Arava, are threatened by similar fates.
- Israel’s Mediterranean climate zones with its unique flora and fauna are also threatened as the precipitation levels continue to drop. It is not only the average temperature which is important, but an increase in extreme events which can lead to a “state shift” and in some cases ecological collapse. Rapid change in the ecosystem can result in biodiversity loss because species are not able to adjust their distribution fast enough.
- As climate zones shift and native species, some endemic to our region, find survival increasingly difficult, foreign species, most introduced through human activities, will quickly move in, increasing the rate of extinction of our native species. Often the foreign species are generalists, common around the world, and adapt easily to differences in climates and environments. The replacement of native species with these invasive species reduces biodiversity here and adds to the world wide biodiversity loss which is expected to reduce the number of species on the planet by 25%.
- Droughts, desertification, crop failures, water scarcity, the threat of pandemics and political upheavals have led to millions of people leaving their homes out of fear or desperation. Refugees have caught the world’s attention by catching the world by surprise. Refugee welfare and absorption is a moral, political and environmental concern worldwide, in Israel and in our neighboring countries.
- Perhaps the most important impact of climate change on Israel is how climate change will and is impacting our neighbors. In a 2012 NY Times Op Ed, Thomas Friedman noted the strong connection between the Arab Spring and climate change. From Tunisia to Syria, Friedman pointed out that in addition to corrupt and indifferent regimes, the root causes of many of the uprisings included water stress, desertification of agricultural lands, droughts and crop failures. Even if Israel manages to successfully adapt to the changing climate, our neighbors may not. The consequences of being surrounded by failed countries are not something we can simply adapt to. If climate change does not worry most Israelis, the political turbulence along our borders certainly does.
Israel is not a major contributor to the global climate change crisis but we certainly have an interest in being a part of the climate change solution. Israel’s technological prowess in water technology, solar energy, bio-technology, and IT position it to take a leading role in not only cutting CO2 emissions at home but helping the world towards sustainability, starting with ourselves and our neighbors.
On Passover Eve as we sit at our Seder with our friends and loved ones and remove 10 drops of wine from the wine cup in memory of those who suffered from the 10 plagues in Egypt long ago, let’s take out another 10 drops to remind ourselves of those who are suffering from the modern plagues which we have brought on ourselves through climate change. The Passover Seder ends on a happy note of freedom and redemption. Next Year in a Rebuilt Jerusalem! Let’s make it Next Year in a Sustainable and Rebuilt Planet Earth.
I want to thank my colleagues, Dr. Uri Shanas, Dr. Alon Tal, Dr. Elli Groner and Dr. Clive Lipchin for their contributions to this post.
I would also like to take this opportunity to express my deep sadness over the continuing violence in Jerusalem, marked this week by another terrorist attack. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. Next Year in a Peaceful Jerusalem!
Finally, I would like to close this blog post by suggesting taking a look at an interesting article by Uri Savir, a former Israeli diplomat who founded Yala Young Leaders, a cross border internet peace initiative.
Happy Passover, Happy Earth Day!
Executive Director the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies