Knesset committee calls for climate change to be seen as a national security issue

Lawmakers lament lack of concrete plans for how security services are preparing for global warming, despite it being an obvious threat

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

The Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meets to discuss the effects of climate change on the country's national security, on November 16, 2021. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)
The Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meets to discuss the effects of climate change on the country's national security, on November 16, 2021. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

Members of the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee called Tuesday for the government and security services to take the issue of climate change more seriously and to consider it a national security issue in light of the clear threats posed by global warming.

“There is no doubt that we are in the midst of a worsening crisis… and despite the good decisions that have already been made, I don’t think that the government understands the scope of the crisis,” said the chairman of the committee and former deputy Mossad chief Ram Ben-Barak.

Ben-Barak made his remarks following a special meeting of the committee focused on the national security aspects of the global climate crisis that was held on Tuesday as part of the Knesset’s Environmental Protection Day, bringing in experts to testify to the various ways that global warming can affect the country’s security.

MK Nira Shpak, of Yesh Atid, who heads the Knesset’s subcommittee on home front preparedness, said that while the government and the various security services are aware of the threats posed by climate change, there are relatively few practical plans to deal with them.

“What bothers me from what has been presented here is that there still aren’t concrete plans for execution, and therefore I don’t even know where to start to examine and oversee, and this is an unreasonable omission. We will hold organized meetings on this topic in order to check the progress and the changes in the conversation,” she said.

During the hearing, a representative from the National Security Council said the climate crisis was being designated as a national security issue, with plans to add a section about climate change into the organization’s annual national assessment, which identifies the challenges and opportunities facing the country.

“For the first time, we are classifying the climate crisis as a threat to national security. We are working now on a national situational assessment that will be approved by a government decision by the end of this year or the beginning of next year, which will include a section on the climate crisis. Next year we will also look more deeply into the consequences on the defense establishment, once we complete staff work on the matter,” said Ariel Gilboa, head of the NSC’s home front division.

The Israel Defense Forces has at least nominally recognized the threat of climate change, with plans to establish teams within the Planning Directorate dedicated to the issue. However, critics have warned that such efforts are insufficient as global warming is being relegated to lower-ranking officers, rather than to the top brass.

“The IDF is dealing with this now, but is also thinking ahead. In light of the understanding of the scope of the challenge and its effects on security threats and the IDF, the chief of staff has ordered that extensive staff work be put together. This work includes putting together a strategy, mapping the effects on the build-up and use of force and mitigating and limiting pollution,” said one of the army’s representatives to the committee, Col. Nir Yanai, head of strategic planning at the IDF Planning Directorate.

The Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meets to discuss the effects of climate change on the country’s national security, on November 16, 2021. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

In his comments to the Knesset committee, Yehuda Troen of the Knesset’s research and information unit listed the various ways that climate change was indeed a national security challenge with direct and indirect effects on the military.

In immediate, practical terms, global warming and the extreme weather patterns that it brings with it will likely require the military to change the way it trains as heatwaves and powerful storms may interrupt exercises, to upgrade its equipment to deal with a more hostile climate, and to prepare to assist civilians in case of more likely natural disasters, like flooding and fires, according to Troen.

In terms of the direct impact of climate change on the military, the head of the country’s meteorological service, Nir Stav, told the committee that the IDF needed to begin paying greater attention to weather patterns for ground forces, and not just in terms of the air force and navy as it currently does. He called for greater funding for the service to allow it to offer more help to the IDF and other security services.

“One of the big lacunae is that the ground forces currently has no meteorological support whatsoever, unlike the air force and the navy. Another is that the meteorological service offers a source of knowledge and support for decision-making in the National Security Council, the National Emergency Management Authority, the IDF and others, but without resources we won’t be able to support them,” Stav said.

He referred specifically to a case from last year, in which a number of F-16 fighter jets were damaged by flooding because an Israeli Air Force base commander failed to move them to safety during a heavy storm, causing millions of shekels in damage.

“A warning could have changed that,” he said.

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

Stav added that a powerful weather forecasting computer, which Israel does not currently have, would also be able to predict weather patterns in other countries as well, which would be significant in planning airstrikes.

“We are begging for a climate computer that can give accurate forecasts. Today we can’t give good climate forecasts for Lebanon or Iran, for instance, which could be critical in decision-making,” he said.

More generally, the global climate crisis is likely to intensify refugee problems around the world and have a greater impact on geopolitics.

“The key word is ‘threat multiplier,’ as the climate can destabilize countries in our region that are already dealing with instability and cause problems with water, food, the economy and refugees, which could bring us to extreme conditions,” he said.

Summarizing the session, Ben-Barak said Israel was particularly vulnerable to such crises due to its location in the Middle East and its relative stability compared to other countries in the region. He therefore called for the government to work to shore up the country’s physical defenses to make it more difficult for refugees to enter, as Israel did nearly a decade ago with a new steel fence along the Egyptian border, which has been credited with halting the flow of migrants and asylum seekers from Africa.

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

He added that Israel also needed to consider the potential impacts of climate change on agriculture and food security.

“Here in the committee we have discussed the food shortages expected in the world and if anyone has thought about whether we’ll be able to feed our citizens in another 30 years. The Emirates have bought land in Ethiopia for growing vegetables to ensure their supply, but we are still dependent upon imports,” Ben-Barak said.

Referring back to Stav’s comments, the committee chairman called for the military to avail its ground forces of the meteorological service’s support.

“Early warning is the basis for preparedness in the climate crisis, and so the NSC should work to strengthen the meteorological service and this will save us a lot of money in the long run,” he said.

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