Climate change a national security threat, but government ‘in denial,’ MKs hear

Despite clear links between rising heat, water shortages and conflict, Israel still sees global warming as narrow environmental concern, doing little to prepare

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

FILE - In this August 20, 2013, file photo, Syrian refugees cross into Iraq at the Peshkhabour border point in Dahuk, 260 miles (430 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq. Top scientists are saying that climate change will complicate and worsen existing global security problems, such as civil wars, strife between nations and refugees. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)
FILE - In this August 20, 2013, file photo, Syrian refugees cross into Iraq at the Peshkhabour border point in Dahuk, 260 miles (430 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq. Top scientists are saying that climate change will complicate and worsen existing global security problems, such as civil wars, strife between nations and refugees. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)

Despite constant warnings about climate change and a government decision two years ago to act to mitigate its effects, the state has budgeted little money to prepare the country for what should be ranked as a national security threat, a Knesset Committee heard Monday.

There is just one part-time staffer dealing with the issue at the Environmental Protection Ministry, two part-timers at the Health Ministry, no proper scientific database on which to base policy decisions, and no money to help either central or local government do what is needed to protect citizens from floods, heatwaves, sicknesses and a host of other threats connected to global warming.

Ministries such as Environment, Interior and Energy and bodies such as the Israel Meteorological Service and local authorities are working together as best they can, but until the country’s leadership grasps, as the World Economic Forum has done in recent years, that climate change is not just an environmental issue but a serious national, strategic threat, budgets will not be allocated and the country’s readiness will remain in the realm of declarations, lawmakers heard.

Addressing the first of several meetings on climate change readiness planned by the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environmental Protection Committee, Dr. Shira Efron, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and Special Advisor on Israel to the RAND Corporation think tank, noted huge gaps between Israel and the US, saying that despite US President Donald Trump’s skepticism, climate change was already on the federal government’s threat list.

Dr. Shira Efron. (Screenshot)

“Climate change is not the only thing that causes conflict, but we know it increases instability,” she said. In the Middle East, the two trends were coming together in a frightening way. Rising temperatures were linked to increasing violence between ethnic groups.

Some 100 million people worldwide already lacked sufficient water, Efron went on, a fact that provoked conflicts and threatened food security. Some 40 of the countries most in danger of water shortages were in the Middle East. Since 2011, 40 violent conflicts over water had been documented in the region. In the most serious case, water shortages caused 1.5 million Syrians to leave their villages for the cities, creating the preconditions for the Syrian Civil War.

In this July 9, 2009, photo, Adilla Finchaan, 50, and her husband Ashore Mohammed, 60, check theIr land in Latifiyah, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

Within Israel, global warming would seriously impact the operational ability of the Israel Defense Forces, Efron continued, affecting soldiers’ health and their ability to train and operate outdoors. Infrastructure would also be hit. For example, she said, electronic systems in planes would shut down above certain temperatures, as already happens annually in Kuwait and Qatar — a factor the Israeli army must take into account when designing new planes.

“Israel must recognize climate change as a security threat of the first order,” Efron concluded, noting that once it was recognized as a priority by the Defense Ministry, it would be easier to get money out of the Treasury.

Alon Zask, the Environment Ministry’s Senior Deputy Director for Natural Resources, who doubles as head of the Directorate for Climate Change Preparedness, said, “We cannot move forward until this is understood.” The Directorate, with a budget of just NIS 500,000 ($150,000) and no full time staff, had spent two years working with other ministries and civil society groups on what needs to be done. “Now that we know what to do and have projects, we need to implement and finance them, ” Zask said.

“Israel must recognize climate change as a security threat of the first order

A Finance Ministry official, Daniel Metzger, said the budgets division was still waiting for details, after which it would “carry out a cost benefit analysis as it does for all projects.” If the Environment Ministry saw the matter as such a priority, it had its own budgets, too, he added.

The Carmel fire raging through the forest on December 2, 2010 (photo credit: Gili Yaari/ Flash90)
The Mount Carmel forest fire, just south of Haifa in northern Israel, which claimed 44 lives in 2010, photographed on December 2, 2010. (Gili Yaari/ Flash90)

Also complaining about a lack of funds, Gedi Aboudi of the Defense Ministry’s National Emergency Authority (known in Hebrew by its acronym, Rahel), promised that climate change would figure more prominently than in the past on the next threat ranking to be presented to the government by March. Threat analyses are updated every five years. The last one, in 2016, took account of climate-related fire threats in the wake of devastating blazes that year and the 2010 Carmel Forest Fire in which 44 people died. Now, following the storms of January which claimed seven lives, the Authority was examining the threat of floods, Aboudi said.

Flooding in southern Tel Aviv on January 4, 2020. (YouTube screenhot/ Almog Tsadok)

“Why don’t you ask to bring these things to cabinet attention now?” exploded committee chairman Miki Haimovich, of the Blue and White Party. “Until you declare that this is a strategic threat, the understanding won’t percolate down. It’s not just about fires and floods. Its much bigger than that.”

Haimovich then challenged Yaniv Yosef Arad of the Prime Minister’s National Security Council, who claimed that the NSC was not involved in the Climate Change Preparedness Directorate because it had not been invited. Calling him “small-minded,” an exasperated Haimovich exclaimed, “We’re here to say ‘wake up,’ there’s a crazy crisis right in front of us and the NSC hasn’t internalized this. The NSC shouldn’t wait until it’s approached but, as the body responsible for national security, should take the initiative!”

Dr Sinaia Netanyahu, the Environment Ministry’s Chief Scientist from 2011 until March 2018, who was recently chosen to head the Program for Environmental and Health Impacts at the World Health Organization’s Europe office, presented recommendations for a national plan to adapt to climate change and extreme weather events just before she left the ministry.

Sinaia Netanyahu, former Chief Scientist at the Environmental Protection Ministry. (Government Press Office)

With five objectives and 31 action plans, her hefty tome concentrated several years of work with academics, senior officials from government ministries and local authorities, and civil society organizations. At the time, Netanyahu called for climate scientists to head the directorate (Zask is not one) and for NIS 10 million ($2.8 million) to be provided annually for 10 years to build an infrastructure of scientific knowledge and data that could underpin decision making. Neither request was met.

Noting that the National Security Council had been invited to joint climate change forums since 2011, Netanyahu said, after listening to the various presentations,  “I’m quite shocked that this is the situation today. I think that all government ministers are in denial.”

Steps taken now to limit global warming gases won’t affect next 30 years, but will help our grandchildren

As an environmental economist, Netanyahu said that the kinds of cost-benefit analyses that the Finance Ministry carried out on climate change-related projects were impossible. What was needed was “mainstreaming,” an approach and way of thinking that integrates environmental needs into decision making on all subjects.

Children cool off in a water fountain in Jerusalem during a heatwave, June 26, 2011. (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

Asked whether he was frightened by climate change, Nir Stav, director of the Israeli Meteorological Service, which just issued a report predicting a rise in summer temperatures of up to five percent by the end of the century, said, “I’m worried when I see that it’s not being prepared or budgeted for.” He emphasized that steps taken to limit global warming emissions now “will help our grandchildren,” but would not change what happens over the coming 30 years.

Haimovich said she would ask Knesset Foreign and Defense Committee chairman Zvi Hauser to schedule a discussion on the threats of climate change.

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