Washington — Proponents of tough legislation against greenhouse gas emissions are seizing on a new argument in their attempts to talk lawmakers into taking action: the threat that global warming will lead to instability in the Middle East and endanger Israel’s security.
In a series of briefings last week on Capitol Hill and with Jewish organizations, a team of experts from Israel presented data indicating that if action to stop global warming is not taken immediately, moderate regimes in the Middle East might collapse and tensions between Israel and its neighbors might rise due to a decrease in rainfall, loss of water sources and increase in extreme weather phenomena.
Jewish groups and activists have already been pressing for action on global warming, with security-minded voices prioritizing the need to end America’s dependence on foreign oil, and others stressing environmental concerns. But the current efforts to predict global warming’s geopolitical effects on Israeli and American regional interests represent a new approach to trigger action on the issue.
“We came here to raise a red flag,” said Gidon Bromberg, one of the Israeli experts who appeared in Washington last week. “We are saying that there is a security interest that needs to be dealt with, and for that we need American leadership.”
Bromberg serves as director of the Israeli office of Friends of the Earth Middle East, a nongovernmental Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian project established in 1994. The chief scientist of Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, Yeshayahu Bar-Or, joined him in Washington.
The Israeli experts met with lawmakers and congressional staffers, most of them Democrats, involved in legislation regarding climate change. The only Republican on the list was Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who is pushing his own version of global warming legislation.
“We want to provide [the lawmakers] with another tool they can use in order to gain support for legislation aimed at curbing emissions,” said Reut Snir, who is in charge of global warming effects on the Middle East at the National Environmental Trust. Snir was behind the initiative to convince policymakers in Washington that climate change will have adverse effects on Middle East security.
Global warming in the Middle East has not gained much attention in international public opinion, which is focused more on dramatic changes already occurring in areas close to the North Pole and less on the subtle transformation in other parts of the world.
According to Bar-Or, rainfall in Israel has decreased, and the Jewish state’s summer season is becoming increasingly hotter.
“Israel is an insignificant player in contributing to global warming, but it suffers from it in a nonproportional rate,” Bar-Or said.
The main changes, the Israeli experts predicted, would be a drop in the water supply — already a scarce commodity in the Middle East — and an expected rise in temperature that will make it even more difficult to replenish water sources. According to the information presented this week, if action is not taken, then Israel might be facing a loss of up to 100 millimeters of rain a year — almost 20% of the country’s annual rainfall.
For Israel, water shortages could influence not only its population but also the future of its relations with neighboring countries. Israel is already facing difficulties fulfilling its agreement — as part of its 1994 peace treaty with Jordan — to transfer water to the Hashemite kingdom, and will face great problems when trying to work out water arrangements with Palestinians in a final status agreement. The Jordanian monarchy, which is based on support of the agricultural communities, might be in danger. The same is true for the Palestinian leadership, which might encounter an uprising of extremists who will feed on the poverty and despair caused by the collapse of agriculture due to lack of water.
In Egypt, the expected rise of the Mediterranean Sea level could flood rich areas in the Nile’s Delta and lead to food shortages, which could destabilize the regime.
The geopolitical aspects of climate change were recently discussed in a study in which former generals and admirals of the American military looked at the influence of global warming on national security. The chapter regarding the Middle East was written by Anthony Zinni, the general who once commanded American military in the region and then acted as Middle East peace envoy for the Bush administration. “It’s not hard to make the connection between climate change and instability or climate change and terrorism,” Zinni wrote. He added: “The existing situation makes [the Middle East] more susceptible to problems. Even small changes may have a greater impact here than they may have elsewhere.”
The Israeli experts who came to Washington last week told the Forward that they were well received by lawmakers and staffers and encountered a great willingness to hear more about the less-known effects of global warming on the region.
The issue probably will be raised again in the fall, when a high-level delegation of Jordanian and Israeli officials will come to the United States to stress the need for American action to stop global warming.
In addition to visiting Washington, the Israeli experts addressed members of the Jewish community during a meeting in Philadelphia that was sponsored by the city’s local Jewish charitable federation.
In recent years, American Jewish organizations have embraced the energy issue, though not all agree on the means to deal with it. Liberal-leaning groups are emphasizing environmental needs when lobbying for tighter emission standards and for the development of alternative energy sources. Some centrist and right-wing security-focused groups, on the other hand, prioritize the goal of achieving energy independence from Arab and Muslim regimes, and are therefore open to more domestic oil drilling and to the development of other alternatives.
One Jewish communal official who is involved in energy issues told the Forward this week that the attempt to focus the debate on global warming’s impact on Israel’s security will have no more than a marginal effect, since most pro-Israeli lawmakers are already on board on the climate change issue, and those who oppose taking action will not be convinced by arguments relating to Israel’s security.
The question of where religious communities stand on global warming was also discussed last week, at a hearing held by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Witnesses at the hearing — among them representatives of Catholic, Episcopalian and Southern Baptist churches, as well as Reform synagogues — all stressed the religious importance they see in countering global warming.
In his testimony, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Washington-based Religious Action Center, argued that religious groups must focus on the issue because the world’s most vulnerable, impoverished populations will be the ones most adversely impacted by global warming.
“This is not simply an issue of the environment,” the Reform rabbi said. “It is at the core of the religious community’s passion for economic justice.”
Saperstein added that protecting the environment now tops the list of concerns of religious communities and is becoming the “defining characteristic and priority of the next generation of religious leaders.”
The threat of global warming will also take up a significant part of the upcoming annual Hadassah conference. The meeting, scheduled to take place next month, will dedicate two plenary sessions to the issue of climate change and ways of advocating for an environmental agenda that deals with the problem.
Among the speakers at the Hadassah conference is Ohio State University’s Ellen Mosley-Thompson, one of the leading researchers mapping the melting of mountain ice tips in an attempt to track the rate of global warming.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.