Climate change is hitting the Mediterranean basin countries harder than most other regions and the risks are being underestimated, a groundbreaking new report in Nature Climate Change warns.
Accelerating glacial meltdown and the decimation of polar bears and penguins has transfixed the world. Meanwhile, climate change is also bounding beyond global trends in most parameters all around the Mediterranean basin. Risks are being underestimated because of the tendency to focus on one or a few parameters at a time, not considering how risks exacerbates one another, the report says. But to formulate useful policies – such as how to support growing tourism industries as the heat climbs and water runs out – leaders need more than isolated points of information.
Now the international team, headed by Wolfgang Cramer of Avignon University with scientists from Israel, Europe, Africa and Asia, has drawn the big picture of risks for the Mediterranean basin, estimating the interplay of key domains – including water scarcity, ecosystem damage, food security and health.
Roasting in Tel Aviv
The world average temperature has increased by “just” 1 degree Celsius on average since the preindustrial era. Around the Mediterranean, the increase is 1.4 degrees Celsius and the worst extremes are in the baking summers.
It won’t get better. Future warming around the Mediterranean will exceed global rates by 25 percent, projects the team, which includes Prof. Shlomit Paz, head of Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Israel’s University of Haifa.
Even in the relatively tame scenario of the global average increasing by “only” 1.5 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels, the daytime maximum around the Mediterranean is expected to rise by 2.2 degrees.
Days with extreme temperatures are expected to become more frequent and heat waves will become common.
Many Israelis tend to pooh-pooh climate change because of their faith in the almighty air conditioner. That is a false security, Paz explains to Haaretz.
“In Israel, there has been a significant increase in air temperature, in all aspects – minimum temperatures, average temperatures and maximum temperatures,” she says. There has been an increase in the frequency of heat waves, in the summer and during the transition seasons as well. In recent years, some heat waves broke records.
The air conditioner fallacy
There are problems with assuming that air-conditioning means global warming doesn’t matter. First: not everybody owns air conditioners. Some can’t afford them and some minimize use because they’re expensive to run. Air conditioners can jack up electricity bills by hundreds of dollars a month.
Second, like the rest of the West, Israel’s population is aging and the elderly are particularly vulnerable, Paz says. During the 2003 heat wave in Europe, more than 14,800 people died in France alone – many of them isolated elderly people without air conditioners and further enfeebled by the heat.
Third, air conditioners are electricity hogs. When the whole nation except for the unequipped blasts them at max – with all that this implies for energy consumption and pollution – the entire energy economy is affected.
The Israel Electric Corporation says it has resolved the capacity issues that used to plague it in extreme weather, but increased electricity use means more pollution.
But capacity isn’t the only issue at stake. A major risk to the air conditioner fallacy is Israel’s effective isolation, with all due respect to treaties and the hints of rapprochement from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. “We are an island,” Paz says. Unlike European countries, for instance, when a heat wave arrives, Israel can’t tap the neighbors for electricity.
Around 20 percent of Israel’s electricity production is powered by coal and the other 80 percent by natural gas, says the IEC. It dismisses the possibility of system collapse and adds that it cools at least some natural gas-fueled plants using groundwater, not seawater (the surface of the Mediterranean has been warming too, by 0.4 degrees in each of the recent decades).
But plants in Europe have already experienced situations in which plants, including coal-fueled ones, had to scale or shut down temporarily because of cooling problems – and using groundwater poses a whole other set of problems.
It’s raining on the plain, somewhere
One challenge to groundwater is the increasingly frequent, intense droughts around the Mediterranean. Couple drought with local factors – population growth; the need to provide water and food to more people, requiring more irrigation; exacerbated evaporation from the fields and reservoirs as the heat rises; overexploitation of groundwater; and failure to protect aquifers from contamination – and you get more risk than is generally appreciated.
Problems can be ignored because they’re simply too vast to grasp and really hard to solve. One example of policymakers willfully ignoring a towering problem is tourism.
Worldwide, tourism and travel generate over 10 percent of global GDP. The Mediterranean is the world’s most popular holiday region, with France and Spain the top destinations. In Spain, tourism and travel were responsible for 5.4 percent of GDP in 2017, while in France it was 10 percent.