'The Sea Will Get as Hot as a Jacuzzi': What Life in Israel Will Be Like in 2100

Winter will get much shorter and even nighttime won't offer respite from the heat. Israel is warming up, and by the end of the century we simply won’t be able to exist without air conditioning

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Climate change.
Illustration: Roei Regev
Oded Carmeli
Oded Carmeli
Oded Carmeli
Oded Carmeli

“I’m happy I won’t be alive,” says Baruch Rinkevich of Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research, who is currently helping to prepare the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s next report on the oceans and the cryosphere.

“After us, the deluge, as the saying goes. People don’t fully understand what we’re talking about here,” explains Prof. Rinkevich, a marine biologist. “They think about melting icebergs and polar bears who won’t have a home. They don’t understand that everything is expected to change: the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, the landscapes we see, the oceans, the seasons, the daily routine, the quality of life. Our children will have to adapt or become extinct. They will have to dress differently, behave differently, live differently. That’s not for me. I’m happy I won’t be here.”

Most climate scientists agree that it is still possible to curb global warming and they are insistently marketing that promise to the public and decision makers as well. But make no mistake: The warming of planet Earth is reversible only in the sense that it can be slowed down by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And even if tomorrow morning we shut down all the coal-driven power stations, idle all the cars and go back to the Stone Age – the planet will continue to get hotter. The carbon dioxide that we Israelis emit this morning on the Ayalon Freeway in Tel Aviv will linger in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, and humanity currently has no technological tricks to return it to the soil.

Baruch Rinkevich. “In a few years we’ll be able to plant coral reefs in Netanya.”
Baruch Rinkevich. “In a few years we’ll be able to plant coral reefs in Netanya.” Credit: Rami Shlush

In October 2018, the IPCC submitted a special report to the UN, drawn up by 91 climate scientists from 40 countries, who reviewed more than 6,000 studies dealing with the climate crisis. According to the report, a 45-percent reduction in CO2 by 2030 and the complete cessation of all such emissions by 2050 – meaning, the achievement of an imaginary goal in which 100 percent of the world’s countries switch to 100 percent renewable energy – would lead to global warming of only 1.5 degrees Celsius. Full implementation of the 2016 Paris Agreement, a far more modest goal, would result in a rise of 3 degrees by the end of the century. Continuation of the present polluting policy, predicted the researchers, will lead to an increase of 3 to 5 degrees by 2100. And somewhere among all those numbers lies the point of no return: a chain of events that will transform our planet into a Venus-type hell.

This article is an attempt to predict the environmental conditions our region can expect at the advent of the year 2100, the latest date for which such forecasts can currently be made. If current life expectancy rates are maintained, a child born in Israel today can expect to take part in the New Year’s celebrations that year. What will his or her country look like? What kind of life will there be here at our little corner of the Mediterranean?

'It will be impossible to exist without an air conditioner. A broken air conditioner is liable to become a life-and-death issue.'

Daniel Rosenfeld

To prepare this report, Haaretz spoke to a number of Israeli scientists from a range of disciplines. All the interviewees were asked to address the anticipated implications of a “moderate” rise of only 2 to 3 degrees Celsius, the midrange of the IPCC forecast. The picture that emerges, however threatening, is the most realistic one for the near future. And even it might be overly optimistic.

Engine failure

The human body is an engine that must shed heat in order to continue to operate. Its chief cooling mechanism is evaporation through perspiration. For that to occur, the surrounding air must be cooler than the body. In addition, hot air can contain more water vapor than cold air, so that under conditions of extreme humidity, perspiration cannot evaporate into the air.

The combination of these two parameters, heat and humidity, is called the Heat Stress Index. Brief exposure to conditions of a high HSI can raise the body temperature to between 38 and 40 degrees Celsius (normal is 37 degrees, or 98.6 F), resulting in headaches, vomiting and shallow breathing. When body heat reaches 41 degrees or more, multi-systemic damage occurs, affecting the brain, the heart, the liver and the kidneys, which can lead to loss of consciousness, spasms, even death. Elderly and infirm people, as well as infants and children, are the first to suffer and die in such a situation, because the heat-regulation mechanisms in their bodies are less efficient.

In July 2015, residents of the Iranian city of Bandar Mahshahr awoke to a temperature of 46 degrees Celsius (115 F), accompanied by high humidity from the Persian Gulf. The result was an unimaginable HSI of 74 degrees – the second-highest ever recorded (the highest on record is 81 degrees, in 2003, in the Saudi Arabian city of Dhahran). At that level of heat overload, even someone at full repose in the shade is incapable of cooling his or her body down by means of perspiration and is in genuine mortal danger, like someone trapped in a locked car in the summer.

By 2100, Israelis, too, could wake up to days like that.

Hadas Saaroni. “We need desalination, and the more the better.”
Hadas Saaroni. 'We need desalination, and the more the better.'Credit: Moti Milrod

“On the hottest days of the year it will be impossible to exist without an air conditioner,” explains Daniel Rosenfeld, of the Institute of Earth Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “It will no longer be a matter of comfort but of survival. A broken air conditioner is liable to become a life-and-death issue.”

A more optimistic note is struck by Hadas Saaroni, of the Department of Geography and the Human Environment at Tel Aviv University. “Cities are liable to be abandoned in Iran, Iraq and in developing countries, but in our country it will be possible to live,” says Saaroni, adding, “People won’t abandon Tiberias, Beit She’an and Eilat. Israelis are acclimatized better to warming. Here everything is air conditioned. So we will live, simply, with the air conditioner.”

“You and I have an air conditioner at home,” says Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians and head of the Environmental Health Track at the Hebrew University-Hadassah Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine. “We are capable of coping with climate change – at least for the moment. It’s hard for us, but we’re capable. But there are people in Israel who don’t have an air conditioner and don’t have electricity. Ask yourself: How many people died in the heat wave that struck us in July?”

Hagai Levine. “We’ll pay in human life and money for complacency.”
Hagai Levine. “We’ll pay in human life and money for complacency.” Credit: Emil Salman

How many?

Dr. Levine: “I don’t know, either. There is a national cancer database, we track eruptions of infectious diseases, but visits to the ER that are related to climate change aren’t logged. We are so far behind in preparing ourselves for it that we are not even measuring what needs to be measured. We should be actively monitoring climatic health situations and crosschecking the data with social and geographic data from the Central Bureau of Statistics and from National Insurance in order to be prepared in real time for cold snaps – but principally for heat waves. I am very apprehensive.”

Levine goes on to warn that, “We will pay in human life and we will pay in money for this complacency. It’s tough for us now in July-August, but the growing extremes in temperatures will mean the shutdown of public life in Israel for a few days a year. Israel is a microcosm of the future: a Western country with harsh climatic conditions. If we are able to find the appropriate organizational and system-wide solutions, like providing shade in our cities and open areas on their outskirts – including greenery covering our homes themselves – the entire world will adopt our proposals. But if we don’t find them, it will be increasingly difficult to be active outside on an increasing number of days per years for more and more population groups: from the elderly to farmers, from construction workers to security guards.”

“Heat waves kill,” agrees Shlomit Paz, head of the University of Haifa’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies. “Seventy-thousand people died in the heat wave that struck Western Europe in 2003,” she notes, “and that happened in the most established countries in the world, such as France and Spain. Our research group Mediterranean Experts on Climate and Environmental Changes recently published an article in the journal Nature Climate Change, showing that the warming process in the Mediterranean basin is 1.5 times more rapid than in other regions of the world. Add to that the parameters that distinguish Israel, such as water distress, rapid population growth, overcrowding, urban heat islands [urban areas that are warmer than their rural surroundings due to human activity] and an aging population, and you’ll find that we are more vulnerable, not more immune, to climate change. Just last May, a temperature of more than 50 degrees was recorded at the Dead Sea.”

Amazingly, Prof. Paz adds, there is no agreed-upon, international definition of life-threatening heat stress. In Holland, five consecutive days of temperatures of 25 degrees Celsius or higher, three of them with temperatures of 30 degrees or higher, is defined as a heat wave – in other words, the whole summer in Israel would be considered one big heat wave. Paz predicts that Europe will have to revise those parameters soon, because even countries like Holland have been suffering from extreme heat waves in recent years.

The Idan reservoir, near Israel's border with Jordan.
The Idan reservoir, near Israel's border with Jordan.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“It sounds ridiculous to us as Israelis,” she says, “because we are living under the illusion that we are physiologically acclimatized to the weather – certainly those of us who were born here. But that is just an illusion. The fact is that electric-power consumption records are broken yearly in Israel. One day in the near future there could be an intolerable heat wave, we will all turn on our air conditioners at the same time and the power grid will simply collapse. In the case of a power outage, we will not get help from the neighbors. That’s the scenario I find most disturbing.”

The local warming trend is fraught with additional implications in terms of public health, even beyond the direct danger to human life. For example, some studies find a connection between heat stress and outbreaks of violence; others have shown a concomitant rise in the frequency of pollutants emitted in the air. But while humans languish, other species that are not so nice are enjoying themselves.

Says Paz: “At high temperatures, both viruses and mosquitoes thrive. In cold countries we see an endemization [acclimatization] of diseases like West Nile fever, which has appeared repeatedly in Israel since the summer of 2000. Already today, we see other mosquitoes here, of the Aedes strain, such as the Asian tiger mosquito, which first habituated itself in our area in 2002. This is very disturbing, because it’s a sign that climatic conditions are liable to develop that are conducive to the outbreak of diseases new to the region. An example is the appearance of the chikungunya disease in Italy and France, transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes, which also transmit dengue fever and Zika fever.”

'Cities are liable to be abandoned in Iran, Iraq and in developing countries, but in our country it will be possible to live.'

Hadas Saaroni

Still, however threatening scenarios relating to maximum temperatures sound, it turns out that a no-less harrowing rise can be expected in the minimum temperatures recorded here. The Israel Meteorological Service found that over the past 70 years, the average maximum temperature has risen by an average of 0.19 degrees Celsius per decade, while the minimum temperature has risen at a rate of 0.24 degrees – a trend that is only intensifying. In other words, nights will become like days. If today Israeli joggers favor typically cooler morning or evening hours, in 2100 the difference between the maximum and minimum temperatures will be reduced, and will disappear completely in urban heat islands. The heat of the day will simply not evaporate. Jogging? Only in an air-conditioned gym, and then only on days when one can safely get there.

“There’s a catch here,” explains Hadas Saaroni. “When the minimum temperature will regularly exceed 25 degrees, on humid nights there will be no choice but to air-condition the house all night long. And then we will need more energy and we will release more heat into the city, which will intensify the urban heat islands. In parallel, massive construction hampers a city’s ability to cool off at night, and expansion of construction to the coastline blocks the ability of the cooling breeze from the sea to penetrate. An urban heat island can be five, six or seven degrees warmer than its surroundings. The night will become an ever bigger problem – especially during the Tel Aviv summer.”

‘Upside-down map’

Computer models run by doctoral student Assaf Hochman, along with Profs. Saaroni and Pinhas Alpert, and Dr. Tzvi Harpaz from TAU’s Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, show that by the end of the century the Israeli summer is likely to be 49 percent longer, while the winter will be reduced by 56 percent. Instead of two seasons, each of about four months’ duration, there will be about two months of coolish weather every year, with most of the remainder being muggy and oppressively hot.

Assaf Hochman.
Assaf Hochman. ‘Instead of four months of summer we will have six months; instead of four months of winter, two-three months.’Credit: Moti Milrod

“We examined what the weather in Israel will look like according to two scenarios involving greenhouse gas emissions,” says Hochman. “In one, we continue to emit gases at an increasing rate until the end of the 21st century. In the more optimistic scenario, in 2040, the government comes to its senses and reduces the emissions. It must be understood that this is not just a matter of the temperature, but of the concentration of greenhouse gases – a concentration that influences the temperature, of course, but also influences weather systems. Using these two scenarios, we calculated the length of the seasons in the years 2080 to 2100. Instead of four months of summer we will have six months; instead of four months of winter, two-three months.”

The seasons themselves will also change, notes Prof. Rosenfeld, of the Hebrew University: “If in the early 21st century, we were used to hearing the term ‘muggy on the coastal plain,’ especially in July and August, by the end of the century, muggy will be the regular summer weather – not for a few days but for long months.”

Daniel Rosenfeld. 'Muggy will be the regular summer weather, for months.'
Daniel Rosenfeld. 'Muggy will be the regular summer weather, for months.'Credit: Emil Salman

When the air gets hotter, he adds, “it is capable of containing more water vapor, but in the conditions of summer in Israel the humidity gets trapped near the ground and cannot rise or generate clouds and precipitation. The result: a combination of higher temperatures and humidity, meaning muggier weather. The entrapment of humidity close to the ground will prevent the formation of clouds, which sometimes relieve heat stress. When the humidity is be able to rise and generate clouds, during the transitional seasons, the results will be powerful thunderstorms with more hail and sudden floods. More sharav days can also be expected” – a reference to oppressive spells of dry heat.

What will the abbreviated winter be like? It will be quite spring-like, says Rosenfeld, apart from a few short, fierce winter storms, accompanied by more extreme flooding, even if the amount of actual precipitation decreases. “The weather extremes will be reflected, in part, in a greater likelihood of more direct outbreaks of cold air, arriving from the polar regions. In my assessment, then, we will continue to see cases of snowfall in the mountains every few years, despite the overall warming trend.”

Israel (and the Middle East in general) is warming up more rapidly than elsewhere, but even within the country, its small size notwithstanding, warming is not uniform. “The most dramatic changes will be felt in the north and the east – the farther one gets from the influence of the Mediterranean,” Rosenfeld says. “Toward the end of this century, the northern part of the country can be expected to be more arid than the center. The weather in the Golan Heights and Upper Galilee will resemble today’s Jerusalem, but even drier. Jerusalemites will experience a climate like that of Kiryat Gat today, and in Kiryat Gat they’ll feel the heat and dryness of Be’er Sheva.”

In addition, he notes, “Because of the modifications in the frequency and character of winter storms, the trend of relative stability in precipitation in the center of the country is likely to continue, along with a decline in rainfall in the Lake Kinneret drainage basin, where we expect a significant decrease of another 15 percent by the end of the century. If in previous years we became accustomed to a dry year being defined by the Kinneret’s water level reaching the red line – at present, even an average annual rainfall isn’t enough to refill the lake.”

Giving birth to one less child is 60 times as effective as all the other actions a person can take to improve the environment combined.

Saarani begs to differ, on this point: “People will pounce on me for every word I say about rain, but we have to understand that we are in a climatic border zone, with a very high inter-year fluctuation of precipitation. To reach statistical significance, we need to see a far more drastic decline. On the other hand, I don’t see anyone stepping forward, like the water commissioner in 2003, who saw one rainy year and said that we didn’t need desalination to fill Lake Kinneret. We need desalination, and the more the better. It’s impossible to ignore the trends of change.”

However, the problem we will be facing won’t be confined to precipitation as such, but will encompass extreme events as well. Concentrated rainfall is not the same as light rain across a long period, as in the winters of our childhood. “This past winter was quite rainy,” Rosenfeld notes, adding, “A rainy year today is like an average year in the past, and even then the rain is concentrated into two months. On top of which, there is a tendency toward increased precipitation in desert areas: Instead of filling Lake Kinneret in the north, the rains cause flooding in the south.”

“The change in the distribution of rain is dramatic,” Saaroni agrees. “It’s like a clever description I once heard: as though someone hung the map of Israel upside-down – the south is north and the north is south.”

Goodbye, cypresses

According to a national report on forest loss, drawn up in 2018 by a team lead by Tamir Klein, of the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel has lost 65,310 dunams (16,327 acres) of forests and groves since its establishment. But whereas in the first decades, 3 to 8 percent of the trees were lost, in the 1990s and in the current decade (2010-2017), 42 percent and 31 percent of the trees have died, respectively. Of these, 24 percent of the trees died of lack of water and 58 percent burned down, with 69 percent of the latter cases related to drought. An examination of the geographic distribution of the dead trees sharpens this picture: The kind of drought in the 1950s and ‘60s that killed trees in the Jerusalem area, for example, is today killing trees in Western Galilee and the Golan Heights.

Tamir Klein. The worst-case scenario is 'no forests south of Beit Shemesh.'
Tamir Klein. The worst-case scenario is 'no forests south of Beit Shemesh.' Credit: Moti Milrod

Of course, trees need more than just water to thrive. Like people, plants have minimum and maximum temperatures that they need, if they are to thrive. If in recent years cherry picking has become a sociable family activity, by the middle of this century even the cherries in northern Israel will not get enough doses of cold weather to allow them to ripen.

In fact, like the cherries, the first trees to die off, according to the Weizmann report, will be the foreign varieties that were planted here.

Dr. Klein: “The conditions, which will worsen, will filter out the vegetation planted during the early Zionist period: Foreign trees planted in the early 20th century, like eucalyptuses and cypresses, can be expected to disappear gradually from the landscape. The cypress is a Mediterranean tree, but not an indigenous one, and the cypresses were probably brought from Italy thousands of years ago.

“In a natural grove, there is competition between each species in the population. The greater the environmental stress becomes, the fiercer the competition will be. There will be winners and losers, and the winners will be the local species, such as the Mount Tabor oak, the mastic tree and the terebinth. Even if there is aridity and drought, and they truly suffer, these types of trees can look dead for a year or two and then renew themselves spontaneously. It’s part of the resilience of natural woodland.”

So what kind of forests will we have here?

Klein: “At present the boundary of forest areas in Israel is the Be’er Sheva line. According to the IPCC interim scenario, there will be no forests at all south of Kiryat Gat, some 45 kilometers to the north. We will experience savannization: The trees that will endure are savanna species, such as the jujube, the carob, the tamarisk. We will see sparse groves, of the kind seen today in the Be’er Sheva area. According to the worst-case scenario, which forecasts a temperature rise of 4 to 5 degrees Celsius and a 30-percent decline in precipitation, there will be no forests at all south of Beit Shemesh,” which is located west of Jerusalem.

Like everyone born in the 1980s, I used to wear rubber clogs to the beach. The reason: sea urchins. These days you can go into the water barefoot without fear of being pricked: The common variety, of purple sea urchins, has virtually vanished from Israel’s beaches.

According to the Oceanographic & Limnological Research institute, over the last 30 years, the temperature of the top layer of our sea (to a depth of 10 meters) has risen by an average of 0.13 degrees Celsius annually – higher than the most extreme forecasts of the IPCC. The purple sea urchin became extinct when the water temperature rose above 30 degrees, in the summer; dozens of species of shellfish also disappeared. A well-known example is the red-mouthed rock shell, which in ancient times was used to produce the color crimson. This creature lived alongside us for thousands of years – before being boiled to death during our lifetime. At present, it’s impossible to find a single living rock shell along Israel’s coastline.

'The Jewish state has looked humanity’s ultimate challenge in the eyes and said: ‘Forget it.’'

Alon Tal

In the meantime, the increasingly warmer seawater is beneficial to people: We can splash about in it even off-season. But the math is simple: If at present the water temperature in the summer is 31 degrees, the trend of 0.13 additional degrees each year for 80 years translates into a temperature of 40 degrees by 2090, even without taking into account an additional acceleration in the warming process. By comparison, 40 degrees is the maximum permitted temperature in a Jacuzzi. Humans will not be boiled alive like sea urchins and red-mouthed rock shells, but there could be mortal danger during the height of the bathing season.

Barak Herut, the director general of the oceanographic institute, does not necessarily agree with that forecast. “The rate of temperature increase that we are measuring here is significantly higher than even the most extreme forecasts of the IPCC, and it’s possible that the rapid increase we’re registering is due to the fact that water is staying longer in the Levant Basin,” he says. “It’s clear that there is a distinct rise, but a different rate [of temperature increase] in different water masses is influenced by multiple variables and is not necessarily linear. To suggest a date when the 40-degree line will be crossed is speculation.”

Together with increasingly warmer seawater, we cannot ignore the largest maritime invasion in the world, now taking place on Israel’s coast. The Lessepsian migration – named for Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French engineer who was in charge of constructing the Suez Canal – is not new. This migration of marine species into the Mediterranean from the Red Sea began when the canal was opened in 1869. But species don’t automatically migrate; they migrate only when it’s warm and pleasant for them in their new home. If in the early 1990s, 29 percent of the fish caught in local fishermen’s nets were invasive species, at present the source of the absolute majority of the fish in the Mediterranean is the Red Sea. You no longer have to go to Eilat to see blowfish.

“In fact,” says Rinkevich, “corals like the ones in Eilat don’t live at a temperature of less than 18 degrees Celsius in the winter. Already now the water temperature in the Mediterranean doesn’t go below 17 degrees in the winter. In another few years we’ll be able to plant coral reefs in Netanya and Hadera, even in Nahariya.”

Ibn Gabirol beach

But our water is not only warmer, it’s also more acidic. Water acidity increases when there is a rise in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. And indeed, since 2012, an average annual decrease of 0.006 pH units (the lower the number, the higher the acidity) has been measured in the Mediterranean.

“The horror scenario talks about a decrease of 0.3 to 0.4 pH units by the end of the century,” says Tamar Guy-Haim, a researcher at the oceanographic institute. “It doesn’t sound like much, but since the Industrial Revolution, the decrease has been 0.1 altogether, to a level of 8.1, which is the equivalent of a rise of 35 percent in the CO2 levels in the water. Values lower than pH 8 units are liable to cause a massive meltdown of populations with a calcareous skeleton, such as gastropods,” which include snails and slugs.

Since we humans do not have a calcareous skeleton, we are not in danger of a meltdown, but another danger does lurk for us. “As a result of climate changes, man-made environmental pressures and the accelerated invasion of foreign species, our sea is becoming highly populated by gelatinous creatures,” Prof. Herut explains. “It’s not necessarily hazardous for bathers, even though they’re very bothersome, but gelatinous species, such as jellyfish, cause significant ecological changes in the water and operative damage to power stations and desalination facilities.”

Even if we won’t want to go into the water, the water will come us. There’s a sort of ruler affixed to the edge of the dock in Hadera. Like a boy checking his growth, the ruler measures the rise of the sea level along Israel’s coastline. In the last 26 years, our sea has grown 12 centimeters higher at the “ruler station” of the oceanographic institute. Warm water takes up a greater volume than cold water. The warming of the air in the northern part of the planet is melting the icebergs and thereby also contributing to rising sea levels.

Israel is definitely not the Maldives and it is not expected to be submerged anytime soon. Even in the extreme situation where all the icebergs in the world melt, the Mediterranean would stop more or less at Ibn Gabirol Street in central Tel Aviv. Also, Israel’s ancient coastal cities, such as the archaeological sites of Ashkelon, Caesarea and Apollonia, are liable to be washed away in surging waves, but for now the country’s modern coastal cities are in no danger of drowning.

Herut: “Our problem with the rising sea level is different. In most of the country’s streams, such as the Yarkon, Alexander and Kishon, the seawater penetrates a few kilometers inward into the estuary. From the Reading [power station] bridge at the Tel Aviv Port, you can see the exact spot at which the waters of the Yarkon meet the waters of the Mediterranean. A rise in the level of the Mediterranean means a rise in the drainage base of Yarkon Stream – which, in turn, means serious flooding on the Ayalon Freeway.”

Even now, the municipal sewage systems are barely able to cope with the local rains, which are becoming shorter and more powerful. A rise of half a meter to a meter in the sea level would mean that such flooding will become routine.

A people thing

Issues of climate cannot be separated from issues of demography: It is demography that has fomented the climate crisis and that will also aggravate it. The fertility rate in Israel is 3.1 children per woman, the highest in the OECD and almost one child more than in the countries ranked after it, such as Turkey and Mexico. How many Israelis will be living here in 2100?

Alex Weinreb. "There will be 36 million Israelis by the end of the century."
Alex Weinreb. "There will be 36 million Israelis by the end of the century." Credit: Emil Salman

“Demographic forecasts are valid for 10 to 20 years,” explains Alex Weinreb, director of research at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel. “No serious demographer will take you more than 40 years ahead. On the other hand, population growth does not stop instantaneously. It’s like an ocean liner: It takes time to stop and eventually to turn around. Our rate of increase has remained stable for the past 20 years. With the Palestinians, it’s a more complex story, because their fertility rate is decreasing rapidly, but the calculation for Israeli citizens is simple: Their population doubles itself every 34 years. At that rate, there will be 36 million citizens in the country by the end of the century, not counting the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria or the Gaza Strip.”

Where in the world will 36 million people live here between the Green Line and the sea?

Prof. Weinreb: “I really don’t know. Maybe it will be like the [ancient Israelite] Temple: A miracle will allow everyone to come in. More high-rises? Artificial islands? I don’t know. What is certain is that the way of life will change.”

Water can be desalinated, air conditioners can be installed, food can be engineered – but there are resources that are intrinsically finite. A second Western Wall cannot be built. And there is only one Lake Kinneret, even if its waters are pumped in from the desalination plant in Ashdod. When we talk about life in Israel at the end of the 21st century, we have to ask also what prospect our children have of living in a detached home, of finding a place to sit on the beach, or just to go on an annual trip.

The obvious solution is to have fewer children. In 2017, an important research study, published in the journal Environmental Letters, found that giving birth to one less child is 60 times as effective as all the other actions a person can take to improve the environment combined, such as switching to an electric car, to solar energy or to a vegan diet.

Alon Tal.
Alon Tal. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“The issue of the climate is directly related to demography,” says Alon Tal, chairman of the Department of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University. “In order to reduce the collective climatic footprint, it’s first necessary to achieve demographic stability. In Israel the birthrate is not part of climatic discourse, perhaps due to cowardice, perhaps due to ignorance. Anyone who dares to raise the issue is subjected to fierce criticism from all kinds of directions. It definitely doesn’t make me more popular.”

Prof. Tal, who is in the very unrealistic 45th slot on the Kahol Lavan slate of Knesset candidates, is currently stumping the country alongside his colleague MK Miki Haimovich. “Wherever we go, we see the direct effect of accelerated population growth on natural resources,” he notes. “Earlier this month we were in Emek Hefer [in central Israel]. It’s terrible what’s happening there. The urban sprawl is threatening the agriculture and nature in a magnificent area. All the greenery is disappearing. And the same is happening across the country – in Modi’in, in Jerusalem, in Ashdod. Despite the fine declarations made by Benjamin Netanyahu at the climate summit in Paris, in practice, Israel is not pulling its weight in meeting the challenge. According to the test of reality, Israel’s emissions are rising at a time when scientists are saying that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent.

“We are aggravating the condition of the planet. The Jewish state has looked humanity’s ultimate challenge in the eyes and said: ‘Forget it.’ What will we tell our children? That we wanted a higher quality of living? That we had to remove all the natural gas from the sea because it was so economically profitable? Those are pathetic explanations. We’re taking about the most fateful issue there is, especially in the Mediterranean Basin, and the government of Israel isn’t capable of appointing a minister who cares that we are simply going to be cooked.”