Big Promises, Little Action on Climate Change

Israel will not be spared the 'inconveniences' of climate change during the coming decades. So its government needs to decide whether it wants to part of the solution or remain part of the problem.

Oxfam, the international organization that specializes in humanitarian food assistance, recently published a report entitled “Extreme Weather, Extreme Prices.” It presents research assessing the influence of global climate change on the price of food around the world. According to the study, the ongoing protracted drought in the United States, considered the worst in 60 years, is one of the central drivers of rising food prices worldwide. The dry conditions are especially detrimental in the American corn belt, and have sent the cost of many key commodities skyward.

The Oxfam report primarily focuses on the impact in developing countries, where typically some 75 percent of a household’s earnings must be used to put food on the table. Yet the message goes beyond the Third World and needs to be heard in developed countries like Israel as well.

The extreme swings in precipitation that are now so frequently experienced around the planet affect the price of food for all of us. Locally, farmers attribute the steep prices of autumn agricultural produce – vegetables in particular – to the extremely hot summer months, which left Israelis sweating while decimating yields. The association between climate and food prices highlights yet another connection between environmental and social challenges.

As in years past, the public was asked during Rosh Hashanah to help support the sundry local charities that distribute food to citizens in need. Israelis showed particular generosity in helping the newly indigent, whose numbers have swelled to unprecedented dimensions; recent data reported by the Israel National Insurance Institute’s annual poverty report show that one in every three children lives below the poverty line, and that the country’s proportion of impoverished children is the highest in the western world.

Given the mounting crisis, perhaps it is prudent to stop and consider the underlying causes of the reduced “food security” for many families in Israel. On the one hand, the phenomenon is a function of the government’s economic policies, which exacerbate the widening gaps between “haves” and “have-nots.” Yet many of us forget that it is also a symptom of inclement weather in a global climatic system that is changing as a result of human activities and the spiraling greenhouse gases emitted from the burning of fossil fuels.

The State of Israel made a solemn international commitment to do its part in the worldwide effort to prevent global warming. President Shimon Peres stood at the head of the government delegation to the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 and declared Israel’s willingness to reduce CO2 emissions 20 percent by the year 2020.

In retrospect, it would seem that there has not yet been a promise to the international community that Israel has so insouciantly flouted. In practice, the government delegation had hardly boarded the plane back home before it forgot its zeal for global solidarity and the meaning of delivering on the diplomatic lip service it had disingenuously spouted.

Since then, a marginal government initiative to conserve energy in homes has crawled forward. The program is surely welcome, but is an extreme case of “too little, too late.”

Since the president’s pledge, greenhouse emissions have only risen faster.Indeed this summer saw electricity demand increase by more than 10 percent relative to previous years.‏) At the same time, the issue has quietly disappeared from the public agenda.

It is possible at times to dupe the international community. It is harder to deceive nature, which reflects only actual atmospheric conditions. According to present statistics, 2012 is set to be the hottest year on the planet since measurements began – breaking the previous record, set in 2010. While Israeli farmers show remarkable resourcefulness and do what they can to adapt to the new climatic reality, the exigencies are daunting. Even highly skilled kibbutz and moshav members cannot transplant mature fruit trees overnight.

Clearly, a more compassionate and socially equitable social policy could soften the burden for the economically weaker segments of society through increased subsidies or price controls for essential staples – such as bread. At the same time, it should be clear that even when Israel begins to adopt a globally responsible policy of reducing greenhouse gas emissions ‏(as it has obligated itself to do‏), there won’t be any noticeable change in the atmospheric concentrations of these gases.

The problem is global: Extreme weather events will continue for the foreseeable future. Naturally, this is an international problem that Israel can’t solve unilaterally. Nonetheless, it is time to start taking the necessary steps at the national level to adjust to the shifting reality.

Among other measures that need to be initiated are raising building standards in order to address the hotter temperatures and more violent weather anticipated. This includes preparing urban infrastructure to withstand floods and other natural disasters; improving urban shading, and reinforcing bridges along with other roads and buildings to withstand extreme weather conditions. The coastal infrastructure needs to be prepared for the dangers associated with rising sea levels. New crops must be grown and developed that are more drought- and salt-resistant. Local firefighting capacity will need to be improved as future blazes will be more ferocious and frequent.

At the end of the day, the issue is not just a social-economic matter, but rather an ethical one. For the scores of unfortunate people across the planet living on islands who are expected to be deluged by a surging sea, climate change constitutes an existential threat. The same is true for the rice farmers of Bangladesh  – and that country’s tenuous food supply. For them, climate change means far more than simply a more obnoxious grocery bill. Israel will not be spared these “inconveniences” during the coming decades. So its government needs to decide whether it wants to part of the solution or remain part of the problem.

Prof. Alon Tal, a researcher in environmental policy at Ben-Gurion University, is chairman of the Green Movement.