The Middle East is a hot place even in normal times. But last week a "heat dome" hovering over the region sent temperatures to insufferable levels.
The nasty combination of high temperatures with extraordinarily high humidity lifted the "heat index" – which factors in both parameters to measure the perception of heat –to more than 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit) in the Iranian city of Bandar Mahshahr, the second-highest temperature ever recorded on Earth.
It was hot enough to prompt some Bible-believing Christians to wonder the end of times is arriving. “The fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun, and it was given to it to scorch men with fire. Men were scorched with fierce heat,” says the Book of Revelation, which pretty well described the situation in the region, even if you are skeptical that blasphemy was the cause.
An apocalypse, of sorts, may indeed be on the way. No scientist would say that a particular extreme weather event, like last week’s heat dome, is definitively tied to global warming, though they probably are. But global temperatures are rising, whether you blame them on human activity or a natural climatic process, and the world will be visited by more heat waves, flooding and hurricanes.
From an environmental perspective, the Middle East is not only particularly vulnerable to climate change but is politically and economically less able to cope with the shock than much of the rest of the planet.
Intensely arid already, the region can hardly afford to lose what little rainfall it gets now, yet that seems very likely. And if one threat is coming from the lack of water coming down, another comes from too much of it rising up: Rising sea levels threaten heavily populated coastal areas, in particular Egypt's Nile Delta. Some estimate that 30% of the area could be submerged in another 15 years, and that's before the latest models warning that the polar ice melt is accelerating fast.
A half-meter rise in the level of the Mediterranean would threaten Egypt's No. 2 city, Alexandria, which has 1.5 million people and 40% of the country’s industry.
Five million Israelis at risk
Israel isn’t safe either. A 2013 Environmental Affairs Ministry report, based on a United Nations report from that same year, warned that five million Israelis are at risk from rising sea levels, which would waterlog Tel Aviv and much of lower Haifa.
Haaretz readers, beware: Tel Aviv could be routinely flooded as far east as Ibn Gvirol Street, which today doesn’t even offer a seaside view.
The Middle East is also the world’s biggest food importer on a per capita basis. Its countries buy as much as 50% of their food requirements from abroad. That makes them vulnerable not just to the local effects of climate change on farming but to the impact of climate change in far-off countries that feed the Middle East.
Ruled mostly by dysfunctional governments that struggle to meet the ordinary needs of their people by providing enough jobs and reasonable standards of health and education, the Middle East is in no position to undertake the long-term planning and complicated policies needed to cope with a changing world climate -- all the more so because of the insidious nature of climate change.
Creeping process of heat waves and droughts
It’s easy to imagine the sudden emergence of a Mad Max world where environmental disaster has plunged humanity into war, famine and financial chaos. More likely, we’ll experience climate change as a creeping process with heat waves and droughts that disrupt normal life for short periods, or whose economic and political impact is so gradual that it’s difficult to make a direct connection to the weather.
We may have already had a taste of what is in store for Israel and its neighbors with the Arab Spring.
The usual explanation for what drove Arabs across the Middle East into the streets in the early months of 2011 was the region’s oppressive regimes and economies that couldn’t generate jobs and rising standards of living. All that is probably true. But historians are still debating what sparked the French Revolution more than two centuries ago; it’s safe to assume it will be a long time before they have a definitive word about the Arab Spring, which is still alive and kicking.
Yet it seems more than a coincidence that the rebellions that swept the Arab world came at a time of high food prices and economic dislocations in Syria - both of which can be traced back to the climate.
The United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization’s World Food Price Index skyrocketed in 2010-11. Wheat traded in February 2011 –the same time Cairo’s Tahrir Square was surging with protesters – to $8.50-9.00 a bushel, more than double the price 18 months earlier. . In Egypt, local food prices rose 37% in 2008-10.
The reason was a perfect storm of bad weather of the kind global warming experts warn is going to become more frequent. Canada and Australia were drenched by record rainfalls that destroyed their wheat crops while drought in Russia and neighboring countries cut their harvests by more than a third
In Syria, climate change was a domestic affair. A five-year drought that began in 2006 impoverished farmers and led to a mass exodus to the cities, which were woefully unprepared for the refugees. In both Egypt and Syria, which experienced two of the region’s biggest explosions of popular unrest, social discontent from hard-pressed consumers and displaced populations was waiting to be ignited.
Climate change and Israeli security
What does it mean for Israel? In an article for the journal Strategic Assessment last month, Owen Alterman faults Israel’s defense establishment for giving little thought to how climate might affect Israel’s security. Climate change will lead to rising sea levels and desertification, conflicts over water, the disruption of agriculture and big refugee flows, he conjectures.
Ironically, because Israel is so isolated from our neighbors, we are less likely than our neighbors to suffer from regional climate change fallout. Refugees from the Arab world will go anywhere but to Israel; we share no water resources with our neighbors; and we do not trade food or commodities with them. Israel has even benefitted from the Arab Spring chaos in the region as Syria and Hezbollah turn inward to deal with local unrest.
As a relatively wealthy and technologically sophisticated economy, Israel is in a better position to cope with the domestic challenges posed by changing climate. In fact, Startup Nation stands to enjoy business opportunities arising from the woes wrought by global warming.
The catch is the political and economic fallout of climate change that contributed to the Arab Spring is only the beginning of a new era and a new set of political and economic equations that are impossible to tally right now. Yet in any scenario, it is hard to see Israel continuing as it has as an island of tranquility in a region made chronically astir by the weather.