Palestine and the Climate Crisis

A Palestinian girl takes a rest on her way to collect drinking water in Gaza, where more than 90% of the water available is polluted and unfit for human consumption. (Photo: Iyad El Baba/UNICEF-oPt)
David Klein | Mondoweiss | February 6, 2019

The urgency of the global climate crisis makes it imperative for any social justice movement to come to grips with, and confront it in some way. There can be no social justice, after all, on a dead planet.

Biologists report that Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction (the previous mass extinction, 65 million years ago, ended the dinosaurs). The World Wildlife Fund reports that 60% of the world’s vertebrate population has died off since 1970, a mere half century ago. Global carbon emissions reached an all-time high in 2018 and the accumulated concentrations of greenhouse gas in Earth’s atmosphere have set a new record, and are increasing. At the current rate of global emissions, climate models predict 4°C to 7°C of warming above pre-industrial global averages by 2100, a time frame within the lifetimes of young people today.

Temperature increases at the low end of this range would result in the end of civilization, as Noam Chomsky and prominent climate scientists have warned. The high end of this temperature range would likely be an extinction level event for human beings, along with many other species, because of deadly heat waves and other extreme weather events, sea level rise of several meters, and the collapse of the global food system.

Even a much lower global average temperature increase of 2°C, set by the Paris Climate Agreement, would be catastrophic according to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), with, among other concomitants, the death of virtually all coral reefs in all the world’s oceans. The IPCC estimates a maximum of 12 years within which the world can reduce global emissions by 45%, which then must be followed by a further decrease to zero net emissions worldwide by 2050.

A garbage truck is seen unloading near the sewage water basins in the northern Gaza Strip, Sept. 19, 2013.(Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA Images)

Climate Vulnerability in Palestine

Nowhere is the impact to the environment more connected to injustice and oppression than in Palestine. Over and above the military invasions and apartheid practices, Israel also wages its ethnic cleansing agenda through toxic waste-dumping, intentional destruction of water storage and sewage facilities, and the expropriation of fresh water sources from Palestinian communities, for the exclusive use by Jewish settlers. As a consequence, 97 percent of ground water in Gaza is now undrinkable. Israel’s assaults are not only environmental crimes, they are integral to Israel’s colonization and ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Friends of the Earth International aptly described what is happening in Palestine as an Environmental Nakba (PDF), and there can be no doubt that global warming will amplify this unfolding disaster.

The effects of global warming are projected to be more extreme in the Middle East than on the planet as a whole.  An MIT study found that under business-as-usual fossil fuel emissions, extreme heat waves in the Middle East would result, within decades, in temperature and humidity increases beyond the limits of human survivability. According to one of the authors of the report, “Our results expose a specific regional hotspot where climate change, in the absence of significant [carbon cuts], is likely to severely impact human habitability in the future.”

Another study focused on the Mediterranean Basin, including Israel/Palestine, reported that “rates of climate change observed in the Mediterranean Basin exceed the global trends for most variables.” The environmental threats include droughts occurring at the same time as increased water needs for irrigation on account of higher evaporation rates.

Gaza, in particular, faces environmental perils not only from changing atmospheric conditions but also from ocean acidification and ocean deoxygenation both of which threaten ocean ecology and therefore endanger a major food source for Gazans. In addition sea level is projected to rise by as much as several meters by leading climate scientist James Hansen and fellow researchers, possibly as soon as 50 years from now. These climactic changes will have devastating effects on Israel and many other countries as well, but since Gaza is essentially an open air prison whose inhabitants are confined to the coast, a single major storm could all but end life there.

Palestine is already hanging by an environmental thread, with life threatening shortages of clean water and the effects of a host of other environmental crimes carried out by Israel. Even moderate global warming will intensify these problems. One can easily imagine a scenario in which climate change acts as a final step in Israel’s ethnic cleansing program, allowing the Israeli government to claim at some time in the near future that “natural causes” were to blame for the demise of the Palestinian people, a demise that just happened to solve Israel’s “demographic problem.”

What can be done?

The Zionist policy to keep Palestinian society barely on life support is an obvious barrier to the development of adaptations to climate change, sea level rise, and related environmental threats for Palestinians. International pressure might help mitigate this, but fundamentally, the climate crisis is a global crisis.  It is not exclusive to any one region, and it follows that solutions to the crisis are necessarily global. What must be done to minimize the climate disruption in Palestine is the same as what must be done to minimize it globally.

The root cause of the climate crisis, and more broadly the global environmental crisis, is the global capitalist system. This is because perpetual growth on a finite planet is impossible, and by its very nature, capitalism requires perpetual economic growth. In order to stave off mass unemployment and economic misery, capitalism requires ever-increasing commodity production, resource extraction, trash and toxic dumping, and especially energy production. A corporation that cannot promise growth is a corporation that will soon be out of business. Capitalism, with its grow-or-die imperative, drives the world’s increasing greenhouse gas emissions and environmental devastation. A social justice movement that seeks only to find accommodations within capitalism is ultimately doomed to fail, and through neglect to help doom the planet.

Individual actions can play only a very limited a role, but there is one important choice individuals can make to support a livable planet: stop flying. In the apocalyptic British film, The Age of Stupid, one of the characters remarks, “other than setting fire to a forest, flying is the single worst thing an ordinary individual can do to cause climate change.”

Air travel indeed contributes disproportionately to global warming. According to NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus, “Hour for hour, there’s no better way to warm the planet than to fly in a plane. If you fly coach from Los Angeles to Paris and back, you’ve just emitted 3 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, 10 times what an average Kenyan emits in an entire year…however, the total climate impact of planes is likely two to three times greater than the impact from the CO2 emissions alone.” Air travel contributes disproportionately to global warming, not only because of greenhouse gas and soot emissions but also on account of the effects of contrails on atmospheric chemistry and cirrus cloud formation. Activists and academics should carefully weigh the benefits of flying somewhere to give a talk in support of social justice against the heavy damage that flying causes not only to Palestine but to the world.

More broadly, it is essential for US activists to support an uncompromised Green New Deal as a first step toward more comprehensive steps including:

1) Nationalize the fossil fuel industry and the industries that depend on fossil fuels in order to phase them out.

2) Launch an emergency program to rapidly phase in renewable power, electrified mass transportation, and sustainable agriculture.

3) Institute a federal public works program, similar to FDR’s 1930’s depression programs, to employ workers from fossil fuel dependent industries to build a new sustainable national economy.

The climate crisis is the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. It has the potential to cause the destruction of civilization, mass extinctions, and in the worst case scenarios, the end of our species. The time to act is now.