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Israeli soldiers of the IDF Givati brigade attend an army exercise in the Southern Judean desert. June 6, 2012. (Moshe Shai/ FLASH90 /Flie)
Soldiers during an army exercise in the southern Judean desert. June 6, 2012. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

Is Israel burying its head in sand as climate change makes Mideast a hot mess?

Drought, sea-level rise and other environmental factors could destabilize the region, but Israel’s defense establishment is not thinking about the new dangers, a new paper warns

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

Main image by Soldiers during an army exercise in the southern Judean desert. June 6, 2012. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, scientists predict that global temperatures may rise as much as 4 degrees Celsius, or even higher, on average. By 2100, the sea level is expected to rise between 0.2 meters in a best-case scenario to 2.5 meters in an extreme one, depending on efforts to curb emissions.

A rise of just half a meter, though, would be enough to inundate the Egyptian cities of Port Said and Alexandria, according to one estimate. An increase of a meter would cover a quarter of the Nile River Delta, the country’s breadbasket.

The slowly unfolding disaster may be enough to uproot six million Egyptians, in addition to millions more migrating from parts of the Sahel. There, land degradation is taking its toll and unbearable heat has become the norm, making a wide swath of Africa, already the continent with the fastest-growing population on the globe, unlivable.

Inside Egypt, a fight for dwindling resources could destabilize the country, putting it in a death spiral, as warring parties stoke conflict which will ripple through the region as refugees spill out, toward Libya, toward the sea, and toward Israel.

“It seems undeniable that severe environmental problems are likely to escalate the degree of global conflict,” Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall wrote in an oft-cited 2003 study for the Pentagon, laying out the possible national security implications of climate change. The paper envisioned a worst-case scenario where “famine, disease, and weather-related disasters strike due to the abrupt climate change. This will create a sense of desperation, which is likely to lead to offensive aggression in order to reclaim balance.”

“Diplomatic action will be needed to minimize the likelihood of conflict in the most impacted areas… Learning how to manage [migrating] populations, border tensions that arise and the resulting refugees will be critical. New forms of security agreements dealing specifically with energy, food and water will also be needed,” they concluded.

Migrants stand behind a fence at the Nizip refugee camp in Gaziantep province, southeastern Turkey, April 23, 2016. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and top European Union officials, under pressure to reassess a migrant deportation deal with Turkey, are traveling close to Turkey’s border with Syria, in a bid to bolster the troubled agreement. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Some 17 years later, a cadre of national security experts are warning that Israel’s military and defense community has not even begun to think seriously about the potentially disastrous effects of climate-driven regional instability.

While Israel’s high-tech prowess may help it adapt to a new climate reality, the country will be unable to protect itself from outside pressures or survive by walling itself off, they say.

And extreme weather that can melt roads or disable fighter jets will affect operational capabilities, changing how wars are fought.

A soldier during an army exercise in the southern Judean desert. June 6, 2012. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

The argument that the country’s defense brass is ignoring the brewing dangers of climate change at its own peril is laid out as part of a monograph published on February 23 by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University, with a foreword by Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

“Where will Israel fight and against whom? How will we cope with these challenges, and with what equipment,” asked Shira Efron, a senior INSS researcher who launched the initiative which resulted in “Environment, Climate and National Security: A New Front for Israel” (in Hebrew). “Climate change is a strategic threat to national security in the classic sense of the word and if we don’t start to prepare for it now, we won’t be ready at all.”

Planning for a hot war

Predicting the future can be a fool’s errand. Among the many forecasts that the 2003 Pentagon paper got wrong was that 2020 would see “migration from northern countries such as Holland and Germany toward Spain and Italy,” due to excessive cooling in Europe.

But at the same time, it appears undeniable that the region is seeing extreme climate fluctuations, which may already be a factor in fueling conflicts.

A controversial 2015 study analyzing Syria’s civil war, which began in 2011,  pointed to a “connected path running from human interference with climate to severe drought to agricultural collapse and mass human migration.” (Subsequent studies have questioned how large a factor the drought was in triggering the civil war.)

Dry earth in time of drought, north of Israel’s Dead Sea.(ABIR SULTAN/Flash90)

A 15-year drought in the Levant, from 1998 to 2012, was the driest on record —  most likely drier than any comparable period of the last 900 years, according to a study by researchers at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Syria and its neighbors experienced five successive years of drought between 2006 and 2011. While some countries, like Jordan, were able to manage the strain, in Syria it was compounded by government mismanagement and other factors unrelated to climate change.

Drought and temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius have already been recorded in many parts of the Middle East, and scorching days, which are becoming more common across the region, are putting human life at risk, eviscerating crops and livestock, exacerbating poverty and income gaps and pushing millions to migrate in search of more livable conditions, the authors of the INSS study caution.

People look at a destroyed van near the village of Barisha, in Idlib province, Syria, October 27, 2019, after an operation by the US military which targeted Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy leader of the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/ Ghaith Alsayed)

The group warns that neighboring Jordan and Egypt, not to mention the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, could also collapse, as weak governments try to cope with the effects of soaring temperatures and rising sea levels.

And as failing states fall, Islamic extremists and criminal groups are stepping in, they say, manipulating distress and using food and water as weapons of control and recruitment incentives.

“Our region is highly unstable in geopolitical terms, and if you add on top of it that it’s a hotspot for climate change, it becomes a threat multiplier,” said Michael Herzog, an international fellow at the Washington Institute and a retired IDF brigadier general who headed the army’s Strategic Planning Division. “This must be integrated into Israel’s national security doctrine. Climate change is a faceless enemy that knows no borders and building fences will not be enough. We need regional cooperation.”

Brigadier General (ret.) Michael Herzog. (Courtesy)

Academics and interest groups continue to argue over the precise role of climate change in a volatile mix of causes that spark conflict and mass migration.

But both the Pentagon and the European Union are integrating it ever more deeply into their military thinking, while in Israel, the authors argue, the process has not even begun.

A Defense Ministry spokesperson referred The Times of Israel to the Environmental Protection Ministry, which has no role in defense planning.

An IDF spokesman said that “climate change is not being discussed at this time.”

Efron, who holds a PhD in policy analysis, said that many of the issues relevant to the Pentagon also apply to the Israeli army, not just regarding prospective future threats, but also operational considerations for extreme heat.

Shira Efron. (Diane Baldwin, RAND Corporation)

“Extreme heat can make concrete buckle and asphalt melt. We’re seeing it in other parts of the Middle East, such as Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Around 30 percent of flights there are regularly delayed or canceled due to extreme heat,” she told The Times of Israel.

“High temperatures affect air density, which makes it very hard for planes to depart with cargo, so you either have to reduce the cargo or take off in the middle of the night, when it’s cooler. Certain avionic systems in the plane shut down under high heat,” she added.

Efron, who is also a special adviser on Israel with the RAND Corporation and an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point, has made the nexus between climate change and national security one of her specialties. She has established a research program on the issue at INSS and late last year organized Israel’s first two conferences on the topic.

On manpower and personnel, she said, “We know that intense heat will affect the health of manpower and personnel throughout the IDF, which can reduce the number of training days, affecting readiness. That also affects your ability to go into operations.”

“You can say, ‘We maneuver more in the north, where it’s not that hot.’ But are we preparing for a scenario where Egypt becomes the next Syria? We did a simulation showing that Egypt, if it continues under present trends of climate change and governance, could get to the situation of Syria as soon as 2030 because of food and water insecurity.”

“These things can have implications for operational activities,” she said. “Technology can offer solutions but you need to know what the problems are to overcome them.”

Israel got a small taste of the price of being unprepared in January 2020 when flooding at the Hatzor Base in the south of the country caused tens of millions of shekels in damage to F16 planes. As violent downpours become more common, this kind of flood-related damage is likely to increase unless protective measures are taken.

An F-16 fighter jet sits in a flooded hangar on the Hatzor air force base in southern Israel in January 2020. (Social media)

John Conger, who directs the US Center for Climate and Security and advises the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS), told an INSS  conference on climate change and national security in November that climate-change related sea-level rise, storm surge, and extreme weather had already caused billions of dollars of damage to naval bases, while a Florida hurricane had taken out an air force base for a month.

Herzog wrote the section of the monograph that deals with the regional national security implications of climate change with law expert Deborah Sandler and former Palestinian negotiator Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute. (It will shortly be posted in English on the websites of the Washington Institute and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. There are also plans to publish the whole monograph in English at some point).

He said he surveyed all of the key books and articles dealing with military doctrine written in Israel over the past two decades and found scant mention of environmental factors.

A military truck evacuates Israeli citizens through a flooded road in the northern Israeli city of Nahariya on January 8, 2020. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

Rather, Israel’s national security approach still focuses on countering external threats from enemy states or non-state actors such as terror groups via military and political means, said Sandler, who holds a doctorate from Oxford.

This includes creating a powerful army, intelligence services, and deterrent capabilities, as well as a doctrine that has seen the country increasingly wall itself off with border fences and barriers, including along the Egypt and Gaza frontiers and through parts of the West Bank.

Part of the fence along the Israeli-Egyptian border, north of Eilat. (Idobi, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

But planning for climate change, which is not hemmed in by borders or traditional alliances, requires a whole different set of tools than planning for dealing with conventional enemies or even terror groups.

All of the technology that Israel can muster to ensure that its citizens have enough water and are able to grow enough food will not protect it if neighboring states cannot do the same, and collapse, the authors write.

While a future Times of Israel article will address what can be done to minimize some of the regional threats outlined above, Herzog and colleagues are planning to create a roundtable, within the next couple of months, to bring senior environment and defense figures together, as a prelude to the creation of working groups to get the ball rolling on catching up with the rest of the world.

Israel’s national security approach still focusing on countering external threats from enemy states, non-state actors such as terror groups, through military means

The authors point to the government’s seeming lack of preparedness for dealing with COVID-19, which also carried potential national security implications, calling it a mere preview for the potentially far more devastating effects of climate change.

“Climate must be present in simulations and war games and factor into infrastructure planning, personnel, and development of security equipment and armaments,” said Efron, who last year co-wrote “Environment, Geography, and the Future of Warfare: The Changing Global Environment and Its Implications for the U.S. Air Force.” She noted that the high cost of dealing with coronavirus makes it not the ideal time, but that “the price of inaction is too high.”

Hotter, drier and more crowded

Climate change is what experts like Herzog call a threat multiplier. It further aggravates an already toxic mix of growing populations, social, ethnic and religious fault lines, poverty and widening socio-economic gaps, severe unemployment and weak and often corrupt governments.

In the Middle East and North Africa, already a global tinderbox, scientists predict that life will get hotter and drier, with more people competing for fewer resources under increasingly unbearable conditions.

Are we preparing for a scenario where Egypt becomes the next Syria?

Average temperatures in the region are increasing at a rate of 1.5 to two times faster than the rest of the globe as the Sahara desert expands.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts average temperatures regionally could be up to 4°C above their current levels by the end of the century, with rainfall decreasing by 25% in parts of the northern Middle East where more people live and agriculture is more developed.

The region is expected to be one of the first in the world to run dry, with supplies expected to dwindle by half within the next three decades.

Water shortages are being exacerbated by human activities, such as over-pumping, illegal well-digging, and government mismanagement.

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

In Jordan, for example — one of the most water-scarce countries in the world — renewable freshwater supplies only meet around half of the population’s water demands and groundwater is being used twice as quickly as it can be replenished. A high birthrate and the influx of refugees from Syria and other conflict zones only adds extra pressure on the system. The shortages are further compounded by poor management. The country loses up to half of its water through leaky pipes, theft and under-billing, according to USAID.

Unsustainable land management practices, such as overgrazing and deforestation are making things even worse, speeding the desertification and degradation of agricultural land, while extreme weather events are sparking famine, pests, and infectious diseases and driving up food prices.

Some countries are already taking unilateral action to hoard diminishing water sources. Turkey is planning to build 22 dams along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, with severe consequences for Syria and Iraq to the south. Iranian dams have impacted the flow of water into Iraq.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia is forging ahead with plans for its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, which has brought it into dispute with Sudan and Egypt.

A young boy irrigates rice seedlings before they are transferred to a bigger farm, in a village in the Nile Delta town of Behira, 300 kilometers (186 miles) north of Cairo, on May 14, 2015. (AP /Mosa’ab Elshamy)

And to complicate matters even further, as natural resources run out, the population of North Africa and the Middle East is expected to surpass 750 million by 2050 and reach nearly 1 billion in 2100, up from 525 million currently, according to the United Nations.

An enemy that is not human

Climate-driven migration, whether directly caused by planetary warming or indirectly via conflict sparked by climate change, is seen as one of the biggest challenges facing states, which may need to deal with an influx of refugees or humanitarian crises on their borders.

The Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated places on earth, already suffers from high unemployment and a dysfunctional government.

Israel imposed a blockade on the enclave after Hamas ousted the Palestinian Authority in 2007, in a bid to prevent the terror group from bringing in weapons and material used to construct fortifications and attack tunnels.

Palestinians on their donkey cart help a man make his way through flooded Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, January 9, 2013. (AP/Eyad Baba/File)

Israel’s security doctrine for the Strip already factors in the need to relieve pressure on the Gazan populace — Israel allows aid to enter the Strip as well as infusions of Qatari cash — but there is no indication that it has planned for a prolonged humanitarian crisis caused by rising sea levels and increasingly brackish  groundwater.

Dr. Deborah Sandler. (Courtesy)

“In Gaza, 98% of the water isn’t safe to drink,” said Sandler, who chairs the Track II Environmental Forum at southern Israel’s Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. “Hospitals can’t do operations when there are power cuts. Sewage is overflowing. What will happen in five years time when mothers and fathers can’t feed their children?”

While it is not clear how large a role climate change played in sparking the Syrian civil war, the conflict is seen as a preview of what may lie in store. The war drove some 5 million Syrian from their homes and to refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, exacerbating problems in all of those countries and often leading to tensions with locals.

Israel avoided much of that by simply not taking in refugees, while providing some humanitarian aid and treating wounded, but that approach may not always be an option.

Syrians displaced by government forces’ bombardment in the southern Daraa province countryside drive near the town of Shayyah, south of the city of Daraa, towards the border with Israel on June 29, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Mohamad ABAZEED)

“This time, when Syrians came to the Israeli border, the IDF was fast in setting up a makeshift hospital, giving them supplies and sending them back home,” Sandler said. “But we saw the rush for the European coast. What will happen when the infrastructure starts to collapse in Jordan, the third most parched country in the world, and in Lebanon, which has no proper infrastructure at all?”

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers treat a wounded Syrian man at a secret military field hospital in the Golan Heights. (screen capture, Channel 2)

One model, from the Stanford University Jordan Water Project, predicted that by the end of the century, if nothing radical is done to stem global warming, rainfall in the Hashemite Kingdom will decrease by 30%, temperatures will increase by 6 degrees Celsius (13 degrees Fahrenheit), and the number and duration of droughts will double. Flow from the Yarmouk River, an important source of water for Jordan that flows from Syria, will decline by up to 75%, the model suggested.

“Nobody is worrying about the impact on Israel’s security if our neighbors start collapsing,” Sandler said. “We’re not doing any transboundary management and there aren’t enough natural resources to go around. We are facing a regional enemy that is not human and that’s neither left nor right. This is about our survival.”

Nobody is worrying about the impact on Israel’s security if our neighbors start collapsing

So far, Israel has experienced just a small taste of partially climate-driven migration as tens of thousands of Africans fleeing from war and famine flowed into Israel until a fence was completed along Israel’s border with Egypt in 2013.

More recently, Sudanese refugees in Lebanon have tried to cross into Israel to escape the economic crisis there.

Gideon Behar, the Foreign Ministry’s special envoy for climate change and sustainability and former Africa Bureau head, has closely monitored Africa’s Sahel, an east-west belt in the liminal zone between the Sahara Desert and the savanna. There, the Sahara has been expanding southward by almost a mile each year.

Gideon Behar. (Courtesy)

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Sahelian region is experiencing the full impact of climate change, with a vicious circle of increasingly intense droughts and heavy rains late in the monsoon season that the earth is too dry to absorb, causing floods and affecting poor subsistence farmers.

“I think that climate change will gradually become the main factor shaping geopolitical relations in our region,” Behar, who also penned an article in the monograph, told The Times of Israel.

In an article published last year, Behar and Haim Koren, a former ambassador to South Sudan and Egypt, documented the way in which Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Maghreb have exploited interweaving factors such as extreme poverty, widespread unemployment, rapid population growth, and diminishing access to resources, caused by climate change, to seize control of natural resources and use them to recruit desperate people to their cause.

A Sudanese refugee cries after reaching Bahai on the Chad border, after fleeing political violence in Darfur, Sudan in this July 9, 2004 file photo. (AP Photo/ Karel Prinsloo, File)

Efron noted that while the Sahel is not on Israel’s border, what happens there can still affect it.

“The domino effect is always there,” she said. “Look at the Arab Spring, which started with a vendor in Tunisia setting himself on fire. The Sahel isn’t very far. It’s on the other side of Egypt. This whole area is very unstable and not at the center of global attention. The US is looking at China and Russia. The Europeans have their own issues. What happens in the Sahel is already affecting Europe and if Israel is in between, it’s very relevant.”

Keep calm and put Kerry on

Although it signed the 2015 Paris climate accords, Israel lags behind other developed countries in planning for climate change beyond very basic carbon mitigation strategies. A hefty 2018 Environmental Protection Ministry report setting out how various government ministries should adapt has not been funded or implemented. Neither the Israel Defense Forces, Defense Ministry nor the National Security Council employs climate experts and the climate is not integrated in any significant way into strategic assessments, scenario planning or budgeting.

An official in the Prime Minister’s Office told The Times of Israel that the National Security Council was involved in “a variety of activities related to climate change,” such as preparing for fires and extreme weather events in Israel.

Asked whether it was also planning for regional, climate-induced instability and the possible geopolitical ramifications, the official had no comment.

In the US, a series of think tank reports on climate change and national security in 2006 and 2007 prompted the US national security community to start incorporating climate change into its strategic planning.

President Joe Biden has vowed to make climate change a top priority, instructing the federal government to integrate it into foreign and national security policy. He also appointed former secretary of state John Kerry, who helped broker the 2015 Paris Accords on climate change, to be the country’s first special envoy for climate change, and gave him a seat on the National Security Council, a first.

President Joe Biden greets Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry as he arrives to deliver remarks on climate change and green jobs, in the State Dining Room of the White House, January 27, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Other countries and alliances are also cottoning on to the importance of integrating climate change forecasts into security doctrine.

NATO Secretary General and former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, who says he has been passionate about climate change all of his life, has called on his organization to “fully understand and integrate climate change into all aspects of our work, from our military planning to how we exercise and train our armed forces.”

In Europe too, where the security implications of climate change were recognized by the European Security Strategy already in 2003, leaders are being stirred into action by the surge of refugees from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia who have risked life and limb to reach the continent.

A migrant reacts on being rescued by the MV Aquarius, after 191 people and two bodies were recovered on January 13, 2017, from international waters in the Mediterranean Sea about 22 miles north of Sabrata, Libya. (AP Photo/Sima Diab)

In November, the European External Action Service (EEAS) presented a Climate Change and Defense Road map to the delegations of the Council for the European Union.

“The government of Israel must appoint a national coordinator, of stature, who will also serve on the National Security Council, just as Biden appointed John Kerry,” Herzog said. “This person must have the same authority as a minister and be tasked with coordinating inter-ministerial work on climate change, with a proper budget, as part of a national plan. Today, nothing like this exists.”

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