Israel's biggest issue of this century may not be how to deal with Hamas terrorists, Lebanese border control or war with Syria. Bigger evils, scientists predict, may be in store if we don't stop polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. What ensues is global warming, which, they say, could change the Earth forever.
Physicist Stephen Hawking, recently in Israel, revealed a doomsday prediction of his own for Planet Earth in China this past June: If humans continue emitting greenhouse gases at the rate we do today, Earth might one day soon resemble the planet Venus. If so, we could expect steamy temperatures of 250 degrees centigrade and sulfuric acid rain, he said.
Others believe that global warming, brought on by burning fossil fuels and clear-cutting land for animal pastures, could have a cooling effect - one so extreme that countries such as Britain could enter an ice age within the next few decades.
Leave it to Israelis to offer a spoonful of sugar along with the doom and gloom.
At Tel Aviv University (TAU) earlier this month, about 250 young and older people were drawn to hear depressing scientific predictions at a seminar entitled 'Global Warming: Is Our Future In Peril?'
The answer was an unequivocal yes.
Hot barley soup with croutons served in the lobby of the Porter School for Environmental Science during the break helped soften the blow. The evening of lectures, mainly scientific in origin, featured Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen from Germany, and TAU professors from various departments. The audience, mainly non-scientists, was alert and eager to hear how global warming will alter their future.
The lectures were free to the public and sponsored by the TAU Israeli English Speaking Friends, as part of their mandate to offer academic lectures that educate and enlighten.
Israelis may be several years behind other developed nations when it comes to environmental awareness, but judging by the turnout and the educated questions posed at the global warming seminar, Israelis catch on quickly. So quickly, that they may even have what it takes to help steer the world away from an impending global catastrophe.
And global warming, participants learned, is clearly no longer something they can ignore. The root cause is the sheer biomass of people inhabiting this earth: billions of people and counting, whose needs to drive cars and consume animal protein far outbalance what the earth can sustain. Israel's own population, by 2050, is expected to climb to about 20 million people.
Average global temperatures have been rising steadily and we are already seeing small signs that global warming affects our everyday lives. A drought in the north of the country threatens our wheat crops. Israelis hoping to race down pistes in Austria this past Hanukka found flowers blooming on ski runs instead - they hadn't factored global warming into the equation when asked to buy cancellation insurance.
If droughts overtake our planet and ski runs everywhere melt, Crutzen has an outlandish proposal that may be a quick fix if our atmosphere reaches the point of no return. He suggests we seed the heavens with sulphur dioxide to curb the effects of global warming. The unconvinced Israeli audience posed worst-case scenario questions.
In other forums, Crutzen has asked that his proposal be taken as a wake-up call to the world. "We have to watch it," he told Israelis in Tel Aviv. "We need to bring down greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. For a long time I couldn't think about an experiment like this, then changed my mind when I saw how little action was being done."
Global warming has already tripped the fine balance in the arctic, where glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate. The environmental consequences, some experts say, could be much worse than we imagine.
Hilla Afargan, 24, a TAU undergrad student, sat in the back row of the lecture hall listening patiently to the forecasts, while simultaneously SMS'ing a friend at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who was also watching the lecture via an internet broadcast.
Afargan, a student in Geophysics in Space originally from Tiberias, wasn't surprised about what she heard, having studied under some of the guest lecturers. She came to the lectures searching for a master's degree topic.
Why global warming?
"It is interesting and important," she asserted, over a bowl of soup. "There's a lot of research going on in this area in Israel, especially at the Porter school. I'm not a 'greeny,' but maybe I will become one day. I recycle, when I can. I don't think people in Israel are aware enough about recycling." Afargan has never seen recycle bins in Tiberias. "It is because they are far from the center and less advanced. And I wasn't aware of the existence of environmental studies until I came to the university," she admitted.
Of all the lecturers, Afargan said that she was most affected by Colin Price from the Department of Geophysics & Planetary Sciences, who compared Earth to the human body. Price went on to explain that the Earth is sick. "When we get a fever we become irritable," he said. "The same is happening with the Earth. The Earth's average temperature is rising."
Measured in evidence from tree rings, corals and pollen sediments in lakes, Price said that the years 1998, 2005 and 2006 will have been the hottest years the planet has seen in the last 1,000 years.
"A global warming of only four degrees: well, we will have a different planet," he said, explaining to the audience that they could expect an increase in sea level, widespread melting of snow and ice, a change in precipitation, forest fires and a loss of biodiversity.
"The prognosis doesn't look good. The treatment is long-term medication. And short term? We need to take Earth to the emergency room."
Short term, Price suggested to the Israelis, "We need to stop the cutting down of forests, and reduce greenhouse gases. We need to focus on renewable energy such as wind, solar and nuclear. We need to increase energy efficiency of power plants, of our cars and in our homes. A switch to natural gas, which is less polluting than coal or gas, will give us time. The thing we are worried about is surprises - it's like we are walking on a table blind-folded."
Other lectures were given by scientists such as Marcelo Sternberg from Plant Sciences and Prof. Zev Levin from Geophysics & Planetary Sciences at TAU. One attendee said he found the lectures "too scientific" for his tastes, but stayed on nonetheless.
"Global warming is the issue of the century and will affect our children and grandchildren," said Yemmy Strum, chairperson of the TAU Friends group, who helps organize regular lectures. Among the most successful, she says, have been lectures on the human genome and seminars at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.
"The meet was very successful," she summarized. Screening the film An Inconvenient Truth (SEE SIDEBAR) the night before prepared people for the seminar. It brought home the imminent and real challenge of the global warming issue."
Strum also relayed the compliment that guest Crutzer paid to the Israeli audience. "Someone asked him how people can stop their apathy towards the earth. He said, 'Look at this audience, I have never before seen a lay audience showing such curiously and enthusiasm.'"
For more information about upcoming events contact English Friends of TAU
at 03 640 8055