Climate Change, Israel and the Jewish People

Ambassador Gideon Behar, Special Envoy for Climate Change and Sustainability at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “The climate crisis is a real threat to the Middle East. Israel must be part of the international dialogue on furthering practical solutions to climate change and global warming.״

Credit: Government Press Office

Speaking to an audience of JPPI  researchers, Ambassador Behar noted that the impact of the climate crisis may be expected to intensify, causing serious damage in many countries. The Middle East will not be spared the consequences of climate change. Israel would do well to initiate regional collaborative efforts to avert the crisis. According to Ambassador Behar, “President Biden is putting the climate issue back on the international agenda, and it’s important that Israel take part in the dialogue.”

The Ambassador feels that Israel could potentially be a world leader in practical solutions to climate change impacts. Israeli contributions could be significant in five main areas: agriculture, water, renewable energy, animal protein replacement, and reforestation. In his view, “these five fields fall into the “climate innovation” category, and all are at the center of international discourse.”

Behar, Israel’s Special Envoy for Climate Change and Sustainability at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, believes that the climate crisis should be added to the list of factors that make the Middle East so volatile. It is already driving various developments and affecting the economies and the security of the region’s nations. One of the reasons behind the Syrian civil uprising against the Assad regime, for instance, was climate change. The draught that struck Syria during the years 2006-2010 caused a mass exodus from the country’s rural areas, as well as famine and widespread bitterness that helped spark the revolt.

Aside from changes in climate, other major problems have arisen in the Middle East – a growing water shortage, desertification, and population increase – which are making it hard to produce food in sufficient quantities. This crisis has already hit Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, and threatens other countries as well.

Recent years have witnessed a significant rise in temperatures. This is having an impact on many different countries and economies. In the Middle East, we have seen an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius over the past few decades. The heat wave of July 2020, for instance, brought temperatures of over 50 degrees to several places in Iraq and Iran. “This is an intolerable situation. And when we look at climate forecasting models for the coming decades, we find that this isn’t an isolated phenomenon, but rather a norm that will be spreading.”

“Climate change is also causing sea levels to rise, a phenomenon that endangers entire populations. For example, a half-meter rise in sea level would cause the Nile Delta to lose 1,800 square kilometers of arable land; 3,8 million people would lose their homes, while transportation and other infrastructures would be flooded on a large scale. A one-meter rise in sea level would obliterate 4,500 square kilometers of arable land, cause 6.1 million people to lose their homes, and turn the cities of Port Said and Alexandria into islands.”

The transition to renewable energy poses new challenges to nations across the globe, especially the oil producing countries. Even today the cost of generating electricity from renewable energy is substantially lower than the cost of generating it from oil or gas. Severe consequences may be anticipated for those Mideast nations that have become dependent on oil and gas exports as a major source (in some cases the only source) of state revenue.

The time has come to change the way we analyze and understand the Middle East. As the years go by, climate change, population increase, desertification, and the environmental crisis will become factors of ever-greater importance in shaping the region. We may encounter grave situations of food scarcity, water shortage, and famine; large waves of migration, instability, and war will follow in their wake.

In light of the above, the Israeli public and the Israeli government need to look toward the future and get ready. Israel should invest in climate-change preparedness by building cities that are more resilient to climate and heat damage, moving infrastructures away from flood-risk areas, rehabilitating ecosystems, preserving open spaces, switching to renewable energies, pursuing economic diversification, promoting the financial/insurance system’s resilience to climate crisis impacts, and more.

Israel has amassed a wealth of capabilities, knowledge, and innovations that could be of use to all of the region’s nations as they grapple with the climate crisis. We need to be proactive in fostering large-scale collaboration. Offering practical solutions to the climate crisis is consistent with the Jewish value of tikkun olam. If we were to share our experience and technologies with the region and the world, that could prove to be one of Israel’s finest hours. This tikkun olam effort could be made in cooperation with Diaspora Jewry, which displays a strong interest in sustainability, the impact of climate change, and environmental protection. This would also help strengthen the relationship between Israel and world Jewry.