U.S. Pullout From Paris Climate Agreement Could Have High Stakes for Israel
In the hours following President Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States would be pulling out of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, world leaders scrambled to publicly reaffirm their countries’ commitments and express dismay. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the White House to express his disappointment, the Vatican said the move was a “huge slap in the face” and European and Chinese leaders moved to fill the leadership vacuum left by the American announcement.
“The Paris accords were a rare occurrence in which the world united—save for Syria and Nicaragua—to care for the welfare and health of future generations,” Israel Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz posted on Facebook. “Even if there’s a 50 percent likelihood that climate change and global warming are caused by human activity, it is our duty to act to minimize risks.”
Israel—which became the 113th country to ratify the Paris Agreement in November of 2016—has already seen some serious impacts of climate change. Experts there are nervous that the U.S.’s withdrawal could have ripple effects both geopolitically and environmentally through the region. “Climate change is already devastating the landscapes and the aquatic ecosystems of our country. And all the models expect things to get worse,” says Alon Tal, chair of the Department of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University. “If climate change is accelerated that means that there will be less food security among our neighbors; there will many more refugees coming from Africa; the Gaza Strip could lose a lot of real estate to the sea. These are all destabilizing.”
The Paris Agreement, seen by many as a landmark achievement of the Obama administration, is the most extensive diplomatic agreement to date attempting to mitigate climate change by curbing global emissions of greenhouse gasses. Every participating country (148 countries have ratified the agreement so far) has set its own goal for reducing emissions.
Eran Feitelsen, head of the Advanced School of Environmental Studies and Professor of Geography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is concerned about the geopolitical consequences of President Trump’s announcement. “Israel being a close ally of the U.S., we have an interest in the U.S. being a major player in the world,” says Feitelsen. “What Trump has done is actually marginalize the United States—China is moving in, together with Europe…It has geopolitical implications, which from an Israeli perspective at least are negative.”
According to Tal, water is the most serious environmental issue facing Israel and its neighbors. In 1994, a 14-year dry spell began in the Eastern Mediterranean, which NASA said was Israel’s worst drought in 900 years. Last year, tens of thousands of Israelis were evacuated from their homes in the face of a spate of fierce forest fires. These phenomena, as well as the drying up of streams and rivers, can all be linked to climate change. While Israel has made progress in desalinization, those efforts only go partway. “The aquifers are depleted, the Kinneret Lake is low, and our entire surface water system is vulnerable,” says Tal. “And we’re only in June. By August, it will be a disaster.”
In addition to these ecological concerns, Tal points out that climate change poses some security risks for Israel. “Climate change could affect life and political equilibrium in Jordan which many pundits believe to be highly tenuous, notwithstanding the country’s miraculous escape from the chaos of the Arab Spring,” he says. “There is considerable unrest among Jordanian citizens, especially in the north—and frequent demonstration about the chronic water scarcity, which is really at a crisis level. Israel’s longest border is with Jordan. It is absolutely critical that we have a moderate, Hashemite regime there.”
Whatever the U.S. does, says Tal, Israel will remain committed to its goal of reducing its per capita emissions to 26 percent 2005 levels by 2030. Likud leaders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu among them, have even held a “teach-in” in which environmental experts presented on the challenges presented by climate change. “Bibi is on board. I’ve heard him speak on the topic informally, and he’s probably closer to Obama on this issue than any other one!” writes Tal. “No climate deniers at the top over here.”