Opinion

A Warmer Israel Will Be a Much Poorer Israel

A recent study on the economic impact of climate change shows how vulnerable Israel, and the whole Middle East, are to climate change

Warmer places will be harder hit by global warming, study shows. Photograph shows the sun about to set behind hills on a sandstormy evening in Israel.
Gil Eliahu

Seventy years from now, places like Texas, Georgia and Oklahoma will not only be a lot hotter than they are now because of climate change. They will also be a lot poorer -- perhaps as much as 20% poorer than they would be if temperatures remained stable.

What those states have in common is that they are already hot. Climate change will not only raise temperatures: it will take a steep toll on the economy, according to a path-breaking study that explores the economic impact of a warmer globe on the United States county by county in Science magazine two weeks ago.

By contrast, if you are living in a relatively cold place like Maine, the state’s gross domestic product by the end of the century could be as much as 10% bigger. Yet, for the whole of the U.S., even with its huge land mass and variable climes, climate change is a net negative: GDP could suffer a loss of 6%, depending on how much temperatures rise.

Already hot

Globally, by the end of the 21st century the poorest third of counties will suffer a loss of between 2% and 20% of national income if no measures are taken to control rising temperature, says the study by the Climate Impact Lab, a collaboration of climate scientists, economists, computational experts, researchers, analysts, and students.

And what will Israel look like 70 or 80 years from now? The study didn’t conduct a detailed analysis of the world outside lower 48 U.S. states, but the pattern is unmistakable. “A rise in temperatures is a lot more damaging if you’re living in a place that’s already hot,” Solomon Hsiang, a Berkeley professor and lead author of the study, told The New York Times.

Israel is hot in some places and hotter in others – there’s no place to escape the effects of climate change through internal migration to more temperate regions  as there is in the U.S. Ergo, we should be prepared to be hit as hard as the hottest U.S. states. Also, there are no predictions that the Middle East will get cooler and wetter with climate change, only hotter and drier.

How climate change can hurt economies is fairly obvious. Rising sea levels will flood cities, damage from hurricanes will grow, crops will wither, and mortality rates will climb.

But measuring the actual damage and where and when it will occur is tricky. It’s been easier for climate change skeptics to point to the costs of fighting the phenomenon than to estimate the costs of doing nothing.

That’s where the Climate Change Lab study marks an important advance, because it breaks down the costs and showing where they will fall.

Recurring heat waves

The biggest cost is higher rates of mortality as more human beings succumb to recurring heat waves. By the end of the century, the Climate Change Lab study says,deaths by heat could roughly approximate deaths by auto accidents.

As the temperature rises, people working out of doors will become less productive. Meanwhile, energy costs will grow as utilities are forced to bulk up generating capacity for surging air conditioner usage. There’s also the direct damage of flooding and storms and the loss of crops.

Even the authors admit their study is by no means conclusive. It measures the economic impact based on the historical experience of heat waves. But an overall hotter world will have huge knock-on effects, like the cost of mass migrations, rising sea levels and damaged ecosystems, all of which will inflate costs.

On the other hand, humans will no doubt come up with all kinds of technology fixes to cope with the changing climates, such as farmers switching to crops better suited to warmer temperatures and cities are erecting cooling stations for overheated pedestrians.

No doubt Israelis will be there thinking up clever ways to cope with the climate, and some time around 2070, someone will sure to be writing a best-seller “Cool-Down Nation,” touting Israeli ingenuity in the field.

But the technology would have to be pretty fundamental to mitigate a long list of losses for Israel – more disease, forests fires and flooding, a loss of crops and a lower quality of life, as cited in a 2014 Environmental Affairs Ministry report.

Israel has been a leader in water technology, which will be critical for coping with a warmer world, but barring a revolution, the cost of desalination and waste water treatment will be far more expensive than it is today.

At least, Israel has the technology and resources to cope. But our neighbors don’t.

The Middle East we see today of brutal wars and desperate refugees is only a taste of things to come if large parts of the region become uninhabitable. It is hard to imagine how Israel will be able to remain aloof.

Donald Trump thinks he is stabilizing the Middle East by confronting Iran and taking a stab at reviving Israeli-Palestinian talks, but in the long run, he will have done more harm for the region and its people by pulling out of the Paris climate accords.