Global boiling: How Israel urgently needs to adapt to climate change

"If we don't deal with [climate change], Israel will be a very unpleasant place to live in the next decade or two," Prof. Colin Price, head of  Tel Aviv University's PlanNet Zero

 A firefighting helicopter is silhouetted in front of the sun, as a wildfire burns in Mandra, Greece, July 18, 2023. (photo credit: ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS / REUTERS)
A firefighting helicopter is silhouetted in front of the sun, as a wildfire burns in Mandra, Greece, July 18, 2023.

Israel must respond and protect its people from "global boiling" - extreme heat, fatal floods, droughts, forest fires and increasing spread of zoonotic diseases like malaria and West Nile virus, some of the country's top scientists have warned.

On Thursday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said during a New York press conference, "Climate change is here. It is terrifying. And it is just the beginning." He told reporters that "the era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived" and that "humanity is in the hot seat."

Israel's carbon emissions 

While Israel must heed Guterres' call to "step up for climate action and climate justice," with a population of fewer than 10 million people, Israel's global impact on carbon emissions will be small. According to the United Nations Environment Program, the country emitted 87 million metric tons of greenhouse gas in 2018, compared to 3,619 million tons by India, 6,297 million tons by the United States, and 13,739 million tons by China. 

Therefore, said Prof. Colin Price, head of  Tel Aviv University's PlanNet Zero, first and foremost, Israel must urgently implement climate adaptation strategies. 

"If we don't deal with it, Israel will be a very unpleasant place to live in the next decade or two," he said. 

 People watch the wildfire on the island Ciovo, from Seget Gornji, Croatia, July 27, 2023. (credit: ANTONIO BRONIC/REUTERS)
People watch the wildfire on the island Ciovo, from Seget Gornji, Croatia, July 27, 2023. (credit: ANTONIO BRONIC/REUTERS)

Price said cities are warmer than the surrounding rural areas, so action must be taken to cool them. For starters, this could mean shading. The United States Environmental Protection Agency says that shaded surfaces can be up to 25 degrees Celsius cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded regions. 

Awnings are one option, but trees and vegetation are even more effective as they lower surface and air temperatures through shading and evapotranspiration - moving water from the land surface to the atmosphere.

"Putting green roofs on top of buildings, growing fruit or agriculture in the city - this could all help break the heat," Price said. 

He also recommended establishing cooling centers targeted at families without air conditioning and older people so they have somewhere for respite when temperatures rise. 

"These things have to be planned, and the population needs to know where to go," Price stressed. 

With intense rainfall expected to increase, Price also recommended improving city drain systems to move water quickly from the asphalt to the seas or rivers, or building reservoirs to collect the water upstream (before it floods the cities) to be used for other purposes.

Over the last weeks, forest fires have swept Greece, less than 1,500 kilometers from Israel's border. The Jewish State could be next, Price warned, so Israel should forge regional cooperation agreements with Greece, Cyprus and Turkey so that when a climate disaster happens, the countries are prepared to help each other.

Forests are also a vital refuge on hot days. Over 200 million trees in forests and woodlands cover around 300,000 acres of Israeli land, according to the Foreign Ministry. But these forests, like those in Greece, are also at risk.

KKL-JNF has been working to improve forest resilience so the trees can survive extreme heat and droughts. 

"One of our main issues is improving forest regeneration," said Dr. Shani Rohatyn-Blitz, coordinator for research and foreign relations in the Forestry Division of KKL-JNF.

Regeneration is when new trees take hold after older trees are either harvested or have died from various causes.

She said that the organization is focused on planting new trees that are specifically resilient to droughts while at the same time removing trees from dense forests to improve their water balance. 

Fire prevention is also critical, according to Rohatyn-Blitz. She said KKL-JNF aims to clean vegetation around certain settlements, especially those with an urban-rural interface. Forest fires in those areas can translate to personal injury and damage to infrastructure. 

Last week, a German scientist reported that July is slated to be the hottest month in 120,000 - data corroborated by scientists from the World Meteorological Organization and the European Commission's Copernicus Climate Change Service even before the month's end. With only one day to go, the average July global temperature has been nearly 17 degrees Celsius - 0.2 degrees Celsius hotter than the previous record set in July 2019.

"I have been in the field for 30 years. Since the 1990s, the United Nations has been trying to shout about the urgency of climate change. Now, it is in our face, and everything is burning up, including in the Mideast and Mediterranean," Price said. "Now we know and talk about the problem, but talking is not enough. We need to act on what is happening globally, or temperatures will keep rising."

He said temperatures are climbing more and faster than scientists expected and that the last few months have seen "huge changes compared to what we have seen in the previous decade. Something strange is happening.

"This is unchartered territory, and it is difficult to know where this is going," Price continued. "But wherever it is, action is extremely urgent."

He said Israel still has time to develop the necessary adaptations, but only a little time.

Simultaneously he called on the government to put into place the steps needed to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions too. 

"We see in Israel that things are going backward," Price stressed. 

Climate law watered down

The government, for example, committed to passing a climate law within six months of taking office, but the climate bill has been delayed and watered down. 

The country is increasing drilling for natural gas rather than decreasing it or stopping it altogether and moving toward renewable energy. The country's renewable energy goals have been reduced from a year ago. And all reports show Israel will not meet its 2030 or 2050 Paris Agreement commitments to reduce greenhouse gases.

"Our climate policies are going backward, impacting the public's welfare and where we stand in the global community," Price stressed. 

The technological solutions Israel needs to mitigate and adapt to climate change are largely available. The leadership needs to decide to use them, he said.

"We keep shouting and waving a red flag, but it does not help."