Israelis should prepare for 50-degree Celsius summer days, climate expert says

Israelis should prepare for 50-degree Celsius summer days, climate expert says

James Salinger, a lead author on a Nobel Peace Prize-winning UN report on climate change, warns that the Middle East and North Africa are likely to suffer most from global warming

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

Children play in a water fountain on a hot summer's day near the Tower of David in  Jerusalem, July 30, 2013.  (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Children play in a water fountain on a hot summer's day near the Tower of David in Jerusalem, July 30, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israelis should brace themselves for summer heatwave temperatures of 46 degrees Celsius (115°F) by 2050 and up to 50°C (122°F) by 2100, unless governments worldwide meet the challenge of cutting greenhouse gases to slow global warming, an internationally renowned climate scientist has warned.

In Israel the widespread use of air conditioners and the country’s ability to desalinate vast quantities of water will help to mitigate the day-to-day effects of searing heat and declining sources of natural water, New Zealand Prof. James (Jim) Salinger told The Times of Israel during a recent visit for an academic conference on Mediterranean climate in Tel Aviv.

But he noted the possibility that if these benefits are not available to Israel’s neighbors, then thirst- and heat-related stress could push desperate populations into wars for limited resources. In addition, people who are going to die soon anyway will die earlier in a process scientists grimly call mortality harvesting, he said, and with higher temperatures and less vegetation, animals will also increasingly perish from heat exhaustion.

While in other parts of the world, warming will chiefly affect winters, it is projected to hit summers particularly hard in the Middle East and North Africa, causing heatwaves for up to 118 days in the year by 2050 if governments continue with business as usual, Salinger said.

Israeli activists and demonstrators hold placards as they take part in a Global Climate Strike in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on September 27, 2019 against inaction on climate change. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

The Middle East: A climate hotspot

Salinger was a lead author on global climate change for the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios published by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2000. He subsequently headed the group of Australasian scientists who worked on the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) in 2007 — a report that, along with environmental campaigner and former US vice president Al Gore, won that year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

Formerly at New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, he has been a visiting professor at many universities over the years, including Stanford and Haifa, and is currently at the University of Firenze. He was one of more than 11,000 scientists from 153 countries who signed a statement earlier this month warning that the climate crisis has arrived, is accelerating faster than most scientists expected and demands immediate and dramatic action.

Salinger explained that the Middle East and North Africa are climate change hotspots because they are so dry.

International climate scientist Jim Salinger, in Jerusalem, November 10, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

“Heat is energy and when it hits ice or water, its energy is first deployed to change the state of that water — to melt ice into water, or to convert water into steam,” he explained. “When you melt ice, the water doesn’t heat until it has completely melted. In places where the earth is dry, the heat immediately warms the air.

“On the coast in Israel you’ll still get sea breezes and humidity. But you’re going to get 50-degree days inland, whether you live in Jerusalem or Petah Tikva.”

A no-longer-fertile crescent

Salinger said, “Areas like the Middle East and North Africa are likely to see rises that are two degrees Celsius (3.6°F) higher than global averages. Add to that less rain and water and the Fertile Crescent will no longer be the Fertile Crescent.”

Brushfires like this one near Barta’a in the Wadi Ara region amid a heatwave, are expected to increase with global warming, July 17, 2019. (Screenshot: Twitter)

“When greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, they form something like a blanket around the earth, which stops the heat from escaping,” he said.

“With more greenhouse gases, there will be more extreme events — the hot easterly winds (known in Hebrew as sharav and in Arabic as hamseen) will be hotter and there will be more and heavier tropical-like rainstorms. When the air is warmer, it holds more moisture.”

He added, “Some of my colleagues have predicted conflicts over excessive heat and lack of water. People get very irritable when it’s so hot.”

Salinger warned that global warming is speeding up at an alarming rate. Between 1977 and 2017, New Zealand’s Southern Alps lost 24 percent of their ice. Over the last two summers alone, which saw temperatures rise by a whopping two degrees Celsius above the country’s annual average, the Alps lost a further 13% of their ice.

This photo taken June 1, 2009 shows the snow-capped Aoraki, also known as Mount Cook, reflected in the still waters of Lake Matheson, New Zealand. Aoraki, part of the Southern Alps, is the highest peak in the Southern Hemisphere. (AP Photo/Kathy Matheson)

In Israel, officials often say that the country is a tiny player on the global stage, contributing just 0.2% of greenhouse gases.

Salinger responded, “New Zealand contributes exactly the same — 0.2% — but I call my country New Saneland. Our government has just brought in a Zero Carbon Act to get carbon down to zero by 2050. There will be no more new coal or oil exploration permits issued.

“If what Israelis mean is that there’s no point cutting carbon because Israel is so small, it’s like me saying that I’m not going to pay taxes because it won’t make a difference. But what if everyone stops?”

The sad fact is, however, that whatever Israel does, it is likely to be hit hard by global warming through the fault of other governments, he said.

Every Israeli seems to need a car

“In Israel, the main problem is use of fossils fuels, industry and cars. Everyone seems to need to have a car. Electrifying the railways is the right thing to do. To have a very good public transport infrastructure is good. ”

Cars stuck in a traffic jam on Route 2 (Coastal Road) on Passover eve, April 19, 2018. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

Natural gas — which Israel sees as providing around 80% of its energy needs through 2030 — “isn’t clean,” he continued. “It produces less greenhouse gases than burning oil or coal because you’re burning methane rather than carbon dioxide and people regard it as a transition fuel. But solar power systems have dramatically dropped in price to the extent that running large power stations on fossil fuels is becoming less profitable. Israel is a very sunny place and you have huge areas of desert that are not being used for solar energy.”

Salinger said that New Zealand’s main problem was “burping cows and sheep” — livestock emit methane — in a country where agriculture is the main industry.

“The IPCC’s land use report came out a couple of months ago and said 25% of greenhouse gases come from land use and forestry. Growing animals for meat is incredibly wasteful,” he said. “That’s the part New Zealand will have to clean up.”

Asked if he was optimistic about the future, Salinger said that he was encouraged by the mass demonstrations of millennials demanding that their governments take action on climate change. “But I don’t think we’re going to keep global warming to below 2 degrees [above pre-industrial levels, as envisioned by the Paris Climate Accords] unless we rapidly reduce emissions from fossil combustion. ”

Salinger’s grandfather emigrated to New Zealand from Latvia in 1900. His family has been in Dunedin, on South Island — the location of the world’s southernmost Jewish community — since 1925. His cousins were the first Kiwis to emigrate to Israel, followed in later years by his brother.

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