How the climate crisis became the Middle East’s threat multiplier

The civil war in Syria, the growing strength of extremists in Lebanon, economic threats in Egypt and a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. According to the Knesset Research and Information Center, the climate crisis poses a danger – and also an opportunity – on the political-security front. Unless we take this on board, the heatwaves will be the least of our worries.

Mickey Levy

Infographics: Sharon Rudnik

The connection between the climate crisis and the increased likelihood of geopolitical conflict is well researched and extremely worrying. Recently, the Knesset Research and Information Center weighed in on the issue, releasing a detailed report about the unique situation in the Middle East.

In order to fully appreciate what is so special about this neighborhood, we need to understand two concepts which appear in the report and are explained in it.

The first concept:
Hot spots - A hot spot is an area in which “the rate and intensity of climate change is relatively greater than other places on the planet.” According to the report, the Middle East has been characterized as a climate hot spot.

The second concept:
Threat multiplier - This is the catch-all phrase for a process in which, according to the report, “climate change accelerates and intensifies existing threats, even though it is not the exclusive cause of these threats.”

While the report mentions that “threat multiplier” is a controversial concept in this context, it also says that such a process is possible in the Middle East, because of the combination of two factors:
The hot spot factor;
and the possibility that countries in this region, some of which are characterized by “underdevelopment or problems of governance”, are likely to find it especially hard to prepare for climate change.
(At the same time, these phenomena are also an opportunity for cooperation in the Middle East, as we will see later.)

How could climate change affect the countries bordering Israel in the years to come? The report contains a few examples:
“Jordan and the Palestinian Authority are expected to see a drop in the quantity of water available for agriculture and urban consumption and, as a result, a greater dependency on Israel for their water.”

“Syria and Lebanon are likely to see increased desertification and a loss of arable land.”

“In the Gaza Strip, the groundwater is expected to be salinized, because of seawater intrusion.”

“In Egypt, the flow of the Nile is likely decline, leading to less available water of a lower quality.”

These environmental problems could lead to a severe economic crisis. Here are a few examples from the report:

“Damage to agriculture because of less available water, less precipitation and increased desertification.”

Damage to infrastructure as a result of extreme climate events, such as flooding or overloaded infrastructure in big cities due to climate migration and urbanization. The report also warns of damage to infrastructure due to rising sea levels and mentions as an example the flooding of the roads leading to the Egyptian coastal cities of Alexandria and Port Said, which could become “islands” surrounded by sea.

Similarly, the report warns of “damage to tourism because of harsher weather conditions (for example in Egypt, where tourism is an important economic sector).”

The report also mentions distinctive economic damage that could befall Egypt and which could impact the whole region. This just highlights how much everything is connected to everything else in this world:
The melting of the icecaps at the North Pole will “open” a new transportation channel between East Asia and Europe;
This channel will reduce travel time by half compared to the existing route via the Suez Canal;
As a result, Egypt could lose one of its most important sources of income.

All of these economic disasters could, according to the report, “undermine the already shaky domestic stability of the Palestinians, the Jordanians and the Egyptians, which could negatively impact on Israel’s ability to cooperate with its neighbors.” Here are a few examples from the report of how this tension could threaten the region:

“Overcrowding and wars over resources because of climate migration.”

“Increased struggles over cross-border water resources.”

“Governmental instability and accelerated dominance of terror organizations.”

“Greater likelihood of violent conflict.”

After all these dire warnings, however, it is important to point out that, according to the report, which is based on a Foreign Ministry review, the situation does not only bring threats, but also opportunities for regional cooperation and bolstering diplomatic processes. One possible sign of that could be seen in recent tweets by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, offering assistance to Lebanon as it faces domestic turmoil.

The report examines Israel’s capabilities compared to its neighbors’ and points that there is a “triple opportunity” here: “Reducing the threat posed to Israel by increased instability among its neighbors; improving Israel’s relations and status in the region; and a commercial opportunity for Israeli businesses.”

Moreover, the report says that the Abraham Accords are an excellent starting point, since they include a clause relating to climate cooperation and suggest the establishment of a joint development center for dealing with the challenges posed by the climate crisis.

It is well known that, because of sensitivity over their image, certain countries would find it hard to accept help from Israel or to cooperate in any way. The report offers a solution to that, too: “Cooperation with countries in arid or semi-arid regions of the Middle East can be in an official government framework, but it could also happen when there are no diplomatic relations or where there is political sensitivity. The Israeli government can cooperate with neighboring countries under the pretext of working with unofficial bodies and NGOs.”

All we can do is hope that the governments of the region – especially the Israeli government – recognize the danger and act quickly to take advantage of this opportunity. The alternative is, quite literally, hell.

The full report (in Hebrew)