Who by Fire


Israeli firefighters work in Haifa, Israel, Friday, November 25, 2016.

The wildfires have finally died out.

The fires in Israel began early last week and were only extinguished early this week. They spread into the well-off neighborhoods of Haifa, the ones close to the forests and far from the port, and destroyed hundreds of apartments. They swept through the hills west of Jerusalem. Even in places far from the flames, the smell of smoke mixed with the smell of dust in the dry wind blowing day after day from the desert.

Remarkably, no one died. The last Israeli fire disaster, also in forests near Haifa, took 44 lives in 2010. Yet the fires this time blackened nearly as much land and cut deeper into built-up areas.

Immediately, inevitably, fire became a subplot in Israeli-Palestinian politics. Evidence suggested arson in several blazes. Police arrested Palestinian suspects. Right-wing Israeli politicians seized on the incidents. “Only someone to whom the land doesn’t belong is capable of setting fire to it,” tweeted Education Minister Naftali Bennett. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a press conference, defined arson as terror, and promised punishment in his practiced stern voice.

And meanwhile Palestinian fire crews from the West Bank joined Israelis in fighting the blazes in Haifa and elsewhere, while others battled fires that broke out around the West Bank.

As of Tuesday, Israeli police said they were holding 29 Arab arson suspects—but the police weren’t certain which fires had been deliberately set, and whether politics was the motive. A few cases may end in convictions, but they won’t justify the political right’s implication of collective Palestinian guilt.

Yet this is just part of the irresponsibility of Netanyahu and his allies. Arson, if it was attempted, would have fizzled at this time of year if the weather were acting like it used to. It isn’t.

The world is getting hotter.

By reflexively framing everything in terms of conflict with the Palestinians, the government—and to be fair, Israelis and Palestinians in general—evade looking at the threat that global warming poses to both peoples.

I talked this week with climate experts from Israel, America, and Australia. Each immediately told me that the fires were part of a worldwide pattern linked to climate change.

The two seasons in the Mediterranean climate are the dry summer and the wet winter. In Israel, the first rain is expected in October. This fact is carved into the 3,000-year-old Jewish religious calendar, as Professor Alon Tal of Ben-Gurion University’s Desert Ecology Department pointed out. “The worst fires in Israeli history”—this year’s and the 2010 Carmel blaze—“have been in years when rain didn’t come until December,” he said. The Galilee, the northern and greenest part of the country, hadn’t felt rain in eight months. The forests were ready to be torches.

This isn’t a local problem. “All the models for the Mediterranean Basin—Spain, Italy, the whole region—show shorter rainy seasons and fewer rain events,” Tal said. When rain does come, “it’s much more violent,” which means that more runs off, and erodes soil, rather than percolating down to renew ground water. In August and September, major wildfires raged in Portugal, Spain, and France. In the lands of olive orchards and vineyards, fire has always been part of the natural cycle. But it’s getting worse.

The pattern is worldwide. “In all the sub-tropic latitudes, global warming is causing a drop in rainfall along with a rise in temperature,” explained Tel Aviv University geophysicist Pinhas Alpert.

With those changes come flames. The fire seasons are getting longer, said Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and “when there’s a spark, there’s a worse fire.” In California, which has a similar climate to Israel, fire is now a year-round threat, she said.

In Australia, global warming has escalated the bushfire danger both in the southwest of the continent and in the southeast, where most of the country’s people live, said Professor John Quiggin, an economist and member of Australia’s Climate Change Authority. The worst fire disaster in recent years was Black Saturday in February 2009, when 173 people died in blazes that spread across the southeastern state of Victoria. After that, Quiggin noted, a new category was added to the national fire-danger index, based on weather conditions: above “extreme” comes “catastrophic.”

Fire, though, is just the exclamation point at the end of the longer list of climate-change threats to sub-tropic areas, which include drought, dust, and possibly, war.

When temperatures rise and there’s less rain, explained Alpert, people draw more from groundwater, which isn’t being replenished quickly enough. Drought becomes more common. The Middle East is one of the regions most affected. “The Fertile Crescent,” said Alpert, “is drying up.”

In turn, people are more likely to clash over water and food. A study published last year by scientists at Columbia University and UC Santa Barbara made a strong case that global warming contributed to the outbreak of civil war in Syria. Beginning in the winter of 2006-2007, Syria suffered a three-year drought that was the worst since scientific measurement began. With farms parched and livestock dead, as many as a million and a half people migrated from the countryside to the edges of cities, even as the price of bread climbed. The study notes that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad exacerbated unrest with free-market policies that eliminated food and fuel subsidies. The authors don’t claim to know just how large a role drought and climate change were in setting off unrest. But it would be hard to ignore their impact.

The chain reaction goes further. In research published in the 1990s, Alpert and colleagues showed that farming new areas actually increases rainfall. They looked at what happened when Israel began irrigating and farming land at the edge of the Negev desert in southern Israel. Among the factors at work, he explained to me, is that dry land reflects more of the sun’s heat back into the atmosphere. Farmed land absorbs it, influencing the weather.

But the process can work in the opposite direction, he said: When people stop irrigating because of war, the weather gets drier, compounding the damage of global warming. In addition, dry land puts more dust into the air—and “when there’s more dust, there’s less rain,” Alpert said.

There are ways individual countries can mitigate global-warming damage. They are easier to debate and implement if a conflict like the one between Israelis and Palestinians doesn’t absorb all public attention.

But, Alpert stresses, fighting climate change itself is necessarily a global effort. Hence the importance of the Paris Agreement on reducing emissions. At this point in the conversation, he dropped the calm tone of a science lecturer and sounded very worried. The United States produces 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. Now, he said, America has elected Donald Trump, who has appointed a climate-change denier, Myron Ebell, to head the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency, and who promised to pull out of the Paris Agreement. If Trump withdraws from the agreement, Alpert concluded, “it will cause great damage.”

Here I’ll add some conclusions of my own. The first is that those who ignored or accepted Trump’s climate stance and voted for him because he was supposedly “good for Israel” were very badly mistaken.

Another conclusion: News about climate change tends to focus on melting ice, rising seas, and coastal cities that will flood. But there’s another story, less told but equally important, of major areas of the world that are drying out. Either way the danger is looming. It’s merely a question of who by water, and who by fire.

When Netanyahu and others in the Israeli government see the flames on the hillsides and can only talk about Palestinian terror, they’re not just being hawkish, or even racist. They are blatantly ignoring the real threat that those fires represent to the fragile land that Israelis and Palestinians share. They are ignoring one more reason that time is terribly short for an agreement between the two peoples that will allow them to stop fighting, live side by side—and turn all their long-practiced diplomatic skills to common goals of fighting climate change.

Until then, we are almost literally fighting over chairs on a burning deck. 



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