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Israel faces an unexpected and immensely dangerous strategic threat: climate change.
This threat is shared with the rest of the world: it is the way climate change keeps getting stronger and how its effects are combining with pre-existing systems of vulnerabilities at country and regional level, the Middle East in the case of Israel (Dahr Jamail, “Experts warn of “Cataclysmic changes” as planetary temperatures rise”, Truth Out, 27 April 2015).
The effects of this “long emergency” have started hammering the whole region and putting under pressure the sustainability of the countries that compose it (James Howard Kunstler, The Long emergency, surviving the converging catastrophes of the twenty-first century, 2005).
Thus, Israel has also entered this new era. It is surrounded by countries already feeling the converging effects of the political and social crisis induced by climate change, its relationships with these countries was already complex (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Collapse war in the Middle East” and “Climate nightmare in the Middle East”, The Red Team Analysis Society, April 7 2015 and September 14 2015).
This new situation is especially difficult for Israel, because its very existence is the result of the political project aiming at creating a robust and long-lasting Jewish state. As a modern political entity, Israel is a young and small Mediterranean state of 22 770 km2 (including the Golan Heights), for which the sustainability and the security issues are, at their deepest level, absolutely inseparable.
In the same time, the climate change and socio-political vulnerabilities’ nexus also affects the Palestinian territories and their population. It must be remembered that Israel and the Palestinian territories share a very sensitive geography, knowing that the interactions between Israel and the Palestinian authorities is historically and currently a tense, terribly complex and volatile conundrum (Corm, Le Proche Orient éclaté, 2012).
In other terms, climate change is deeply changing the strategic situation of Israel.
To understand this change, we shall start by looking at the way climate change threatens Israel’s sustainability. Then, we shall focus on the huge national and international problem of the rising sea levels. Finally, we shall see how new strategic threats can support the emergence of new kinds of cooperation.
The coming unsustainability?
Insuring basic sustainability has been at the very heart of the political and military strategy of the Israeli authorities since the creation of Israel in 1948. In effect, Israel is installed in a mostly arid region, which natural environment and ecosystem, until the middle of the 20th century, could only sustain a small population. However, the growing demographics of Israel during the second half of the 20th century – from 1,3 million to 8,46 million inhabitants – has necessitated that the environment evolves to become able to support this evolution.
Thus, in order to ensure the biological support of the country’s population, the political authorities, from the local to the national level, have encouraged the use of agricultural, industrial and human practice consuming as little water as possible. Israel has thus become the world leader in water technology (Owen Alterman “Climate change and security, an Israeli perspective”, Strategic Assessment, July 2015).
In the same time, considering the aridity of the region, it has been necessary to secure access to as much water as possible. For example, reaching and taking control of the Golan Heights from Syria, from which flow the Jordan river, has been one of the benefits of the military victory of the 1967 Six Days War. Since then, numerous Israeli settlements have been created in the Golan, while the region has been a constant source of tension with Syria (Avi Schlaim, The Iron Wall, Israel and the Arab world, 2014).
The same political attention has been invested in the important national program of forestation. More than 240 million trees have been planted in sixty years, through the creation of orchards and 66 national parks and natural reserves (Orenstein, Daniel, Alon, Miller, Tal, Between Ruin and Restoration, an environmental history of Israel, 2013). The aim was to have as much fruit trees as possible to support agriculture and food security, and to stabilize the soil and the humidity (Ibid.). Furthermore, this forestation program reinforces the biodiversity base of Israel’s society, without which the social development of the country would be much more constrained (Ibid.).
Not only is this ecology policy based on environmental protection, but it also represents the ecological dimension of the Israeli development. It can be understood as an integral part of the Israeli project, i.e. the intention of the Israeli society and political authorities to guarantee the present and future existence of Israel.
In fact, this ecology and sustainability policy is another dimension of the security of Israel, which is no less important than the more “classical” defense and national security preserved by Tsahal and by the security and intelligence agency, such as Shin Bet and Mossad (Martin Van Creveld, The land of blood and honey, the rise of modern Israel, 2010).
However, nowadays, climate change is directly threatening the biogeographic support of Israel’s project.
In effect, anthropogenic climate change results of the growing rate of emissions of greenhouse gas, which have thus been accumulating in the atmosphere, due to the global use of coal, oil and natural gas, since the 18th century (Spencer Weart, The Discovery of global warming, 2008).
The fifth report of the International Panel on Climate Change demonstrates how this process is accelerating and is having mammoth impacts by altering the basic conditions of life on earth. Climate change involves, among other manifestations, a rising of sea levels, an acidification of the oceans, an important diminishing of ground and sea ice, a never-ending multiplication of extreme weather events, such as storms, droughts, floods, heat waves, etc. (IPCC, fifth report, 2014).
In other words, climate change is not only changing the planet we are living on; it propels humanity on a new Earth, with geophysical conditions that are quite different from what the human species has been accustomed to these last three million years.
And this global change has started to endanger Israel. For example, the country has had to fight giant wildfires during the heat waves of 2010 and 2015. The infamous “Carmel mountain” fire of 2010 has had numerous dire effects on natural vegetal and animal life, and has caused 55 millions dollars worth of damages (“Fire fighters battle major Israel forest fire”, The Telegraph, 03 Dec, 2010).
More ominously, according to doctor Guy Pe’er, one of the leading authors of “Israel’s national report on climate change”, this wildfire is a signal of the coming effects of climate change (Press Release, “Scientists: the fire in Israel is a typical example of climate change effects in the Mediterranean”, Helmholtz Centre for environmental research, December 8, 2010 and Nir Hasson, “Wild fire forces 700 Jerusalem suburbs residents to evacuate”, Haaretz, August 02, 2015).
In this context, great attention must be given to the 2015 weather, when the whole of Middle East suffered under the “heat dome”, which lasted from the end of July to the middle of August. This terrible heat wave has swept the whole region, from Iran and the Persian Gulf to Egypt, causing hundreds of deaths and a heavy pressure on human health, infrastructures and social cohesion (Kyle Jaeger, “”Heat Dome” in the Middle East is ravaging region’s residents”, ATTN, August 4th, 2015).
In effect, the “heat dome” put dozens of millions of people at risk, because atmospheric temperature peaked at 70° C in Iran and Iraq, which, for example, led Iraqi authorities to declare a four days holidays, in order to protect people from heat strokes at work (Katie Valentine, “Extreme heat leads to protests, deaths in the Middle East”, Think Progress, August 10, 2015). In Israel, it was accompanied by violent wildfires, close to the suburbs of Jerusalem.
In other words, climate change is already endangering the biological network that supports the soil, the water cycle and the biodiversity of the Middle East, as well as the Israel ecosystem and the infrastructures, which are all necessary to the daily social, economic, sanitary, and biological life of the whole population (Fritzsche and Ruettinger, Environment, Climate Change and Security in the Southern Mediterranean, Review report, Adelphi, 2013).
Rising sea and water depletion as regional strategic chain reaction?
Because of climate change, the level of the ocean and the seas is rapidly rising, resulting from the conjunction of the dilation of the surface water and to the increasingly rapid melting of the land ice caps. This process turns the densely populated and urbanized Mediterranean coast of Israel into a massive window of vulnerability (Paul Brown, “Satellite data indicates sea levels rising faster than expected”, Climate change news, 27 march 2015).
This is becoming an even more acute issue since the publishing of the latest report by the scientist team led by James Hansen, which states that, contrary to the IPCC statements, sea level rise will happen sooner and in a much stronger way than expected and will reach not one metre in 2100, but between two and five meters (Eric Holtaus, “James Hansen Bombshell’s climate warning is now part of the Scientific canon”, Slate.com, March 22, 2016).
In this worst case, but, alas, not improbable scenario, not only Israel, but also all the Mediterranean countries will face a catastrophe.
The rising of sea levels is eroding coastlines while sea water infiltrates the littoral soil and salinizes it, which is very toxic for the vegetal and animal life, for agriculture and human health. This is already the case in neighbouring Egypt in the Nile Delta (World Bank, The impact of sea level rise on developing countries: A comparative analysis, policy research paper 4136, 2007). The rising sea level is also going to make uninhabitable entire swaths of the coastline (IPCC fifth assessment, Climate change, impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, 2014).
In this regard, the absence of strategic depth is a major problem for Israel (Martin Van Creveld, ibid). The displacement of a significant part of the littoral population, which represents 70% of the population, would be an immense political and logistical challenge.
To understand the scale of the climate change’s challenge for Israel, one must realise that it is combined with the fact that Israel’s Arab neighbours are already in crisis. The region is hammered by climate change, with disrupted rain patterns and a regional water crisis (Werrell and Femia, The Arab Spring and Climate Change, 2013).
In effect, the crisis in Syria has been heightened by the immense drought felt since 2006, which has accelerated urban exile, projecting millions of people into cities, which were not ready (“Syria: Drought driving farmers to the cities“, IRIN, 2 September 2009).
This engendered immense social tensions, which fanned all the other political tensions and exploded with the “Arab spring”. In Syria, this quickly degenerated into the terrible war that is utterly devastating the country, making it tragically unsustainable (Helene Lavoix, “Portal to the Islamic State war”, The Red Team Analysis Society). As a result, 4.8 million Syrians have already fled, out of which 638,633 are in Jordan, which already goes through a worrying water crisis (UNHCR figures, 11 April 2016; Valantin, “Collapse war in the Middle East?”, ibid).
The other neighbours of Israel are also in crisis. Egypt is already in a state of war against various armed Islamist groups, among them the Islamic State, while going through a major economic crisis and feeling already the effects of climate change (Helene Lavoix, “Portal to the Islamic State War”, The Red Team Analysis Society, Jean-Michel Valantin, “Security and sustainability, the future of Egypt?, The Red Team Analysis Society, 28 April, 2014). Lebanon is hosting 1.055 million refugees (UNHCR Ibid.), and its capabilities are overstretched.
This means that Israel is now surrounded by the synergy of different national and regional crises, defined by the way the sustainability of its neighbours and its own are directly threatened by the complex effects of climate change, combined with different kinds of political instability and violence.
Israel in the Anthropocene era
In other terms, Israel and the Middle East are affected by the current planetary crisis, characterised by the fact that it is altering the very fabric of the life conditions on Earth.
This planetary change is qualified as the “Anthropocene”, in order to explain that a new geophysical era has started, defined by the fact that the human species has become the main geological and biological force of the Earth-system (Jan Zalasiewicz, Anthropocene: a new epoch of geological time?, 2011).
As a result, the fundamental political and strategic question that arises is to know if the human modern societies are able to adapt to these very new and unknown planetary conditions.
This means that Israel’s political authorities may have to wonder about the effects of the Anthropocene on what we could call “Israel’s new security era”. In effect, since 1967 and the Six Days War, the difficult and often violent relations with the Palestinian political authorities have been at the core of the Israeli security thinking and apparatus (Ilan Greilsammer, La nouvelle histoire d’Israel, 1998).
However, because of the geographical reality, the West Bank and the Gaza strip are going to be put exactly under the same pressures: those created by the nexus of climate change with hydric stress combined with a socio-political crisis.
It means that a major strategic issue is going to be the coming interactions between the Israeli and the Palestinian Anthropocene crisis. However, this situation can also lead the different actors to find new ways to cooperate in order to find creative answers to the climate change long crisis.
In effect, the need for regional cooperation for sustainability is already being understood and experimented with other actors. The joint project with Jordan to dig a channel between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea is a good example of this necessity (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Environment, Climate Change, War and State”, The Red Team Analysis Society, March 16, 2015).
This project is developed in order to stop the evaporation of this inner sea and to create a new zone from which sea water will be pumped for desalination from both the Israeli and the Jordan sides (Suleiman Al Khalidi, “Jordan Israel agree $ 900 million Dead sea Red Sea project”, Reuters, Feb 26, 2015).
Furthermore, the climatic-social crisis, which impacts the whole Middle East could turn entire regions into being unsustainable. However, as shown by the Iraqi and the Syrian wars, the population flees when a region becomes unsustainable, for war reasons or socio-environmental regions.
This raises the question of what will happen for Israel if new flows of refugees looking for zones of sustainability, even more massive than the current ones, are emerging from the Middle East (Sharon Udasin, “Defending Israel’s borders from “climate refugees”, The Jerusalem Post, 05/14/2012).
Thus, for Israel, preparing the adaptation to the Anthropocene is the most challenging issue to its short and middle-term security. Indeed, the Anthropocene dangerously affects its socio-environmental national security, through the destabilisation of the bio-geographical base of Israel, of its neighbours and of the Palestinian territories.
Furthermore, at a deeper level, as seen, climate change could mean that the Middle East may become a region knowing very great difficulties to be simply viable during the 21st century.
In other terms, the Anthropocene, especially its climatic dimension, is going to force Israel to find innovative, and possibly hybrid security and cooperative strategies, in order to project itself throughout this century.
About the author: Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defence sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.