Thursday, January 06, 2011

Climate change, forest fires, and cultural collateral damage

Carmel Forest in better days
The price of climate change isn’t just high temperatures and rising seas. It is cultural, political, economic and philosophical. Climate change has collateral damage.

In December, the worst forest fire in Israel’s history destroyed 12,000 acres (4,800 hectares) of forest. The fire did not just destroy trees; it destroyed one of the philosophical underpinnings of the Jewish state, costs millions of dollars, dozens of lives and could even contribute to bringing down a government.

The fires should not have been a surprise. In 2001, Israeli scientists predicted that the changing climate would eventually lead to heat waves, drought, a change in rain patterns and eventually forest fires. All that turned out to be true. Guy Pe’er, a co-author of Israeli’s National Report on Climate Change, said what happened in Carmel was “a taste of the future.”

The fire roared through the mountains in the northern part of the country, south of the port city of Haifa, an area about 1,500 feet (500 meters) above sea level, which draws thousands of tourists because of its exceptional beauty in a region more famous for desert. Something like 5 million trees were destroyed. Forty-three people died, many of them burned to death in a trapped bus.

In the report almost a decade ago, Pe’er and others said that if temperatures in the area rose by as little as 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7) Fahrenheit, the desert would expand northwards by several hundred miles. But at the rate temperatures were rising, the temperatures would be higher than that by century’s end. This would essentially put an end to Israel’s Mediterranean climate.

This year, the rains did not come. Carmel suffered from eight months of drought and unusually high temperatures, hovering around 96 degrees Fahrenheit (30 C). It was prime forest fire weather. And Israel was totally unprepared.

Getty Images
Some background puts this into perspective. It’s not just the trees.

Israel is perhaps the only country in the world that has more trees now than it did in the beginning of the 20th century. Trees became the symbol of the Zionist movement, reclaiming the land from the desert and the neglect of millennia. Many Jewish homes in the diaspora had little blue boxes sent by the Jewish National Fund, an organization devoted to planting trees in the Holy Land. When you had loose change, you put in the blue box. Stores in Jewish neighborhoods stocked the boxes as well. Children who went through the rite of passage of the bar or bat mitzvah often received planted trees as presents. (My family probably has a couple of dozen plantings in our name). It was a legitimate wedding gift.  Millions of trees were planted, turning northern Israel green. The forests were lines of mostly pines, exceptional only in where they were, how many of them there were and how they got there. For the area they were extraordinary, and there were so many of them they actually changed the local climate.

Unfortunately, the JNF never invested any of that gift money in forest fire fighting equipment and the country itself discovered to its dismay it also had neglected fire emergencies under the theory that most of the buildings in Israel are made of stone and hence not fire prone. The fire burned itself out more than it was put out, and a country famous for sending aid to other countries suffering from natural disasters had to ask for help for itself. Even the Palestinians chipped in with engines.

The unpreparedness could cost the Interior Minister his job and the poor response of the government did little good to the precarious government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, the JNF is trying to collect funds to plant more trees and is running into opposition from contributors who are unhappy about what they did with the money they had, and scientists who believe the best way to restore the Carmel forests is to leave them the hell alone and let nature rebuild them. Nature is likely to do a better job.

Except for the changing climate, that is,which could make the forests of Carmel just a brief moment of verdure in the long history of that sere and benighted region.

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