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‘If you’re for justice for Palestinians, you’re for climate justice’: Zena Agha on climate change and the future of Palestine

Climate change is among the greatest threats facing humanity. Its effects are global, wide-ranging, and distributed in a highly unequal manner. Although Palestinians and Israelis inhabit the same physical terrain, Palestinians under occupation will suffer the effects of climate change more severely.

So begins “Climate Change, the Occupation, and a Vulnerable Palestine,” a recent policy brief by Zena Agha for the Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka. In the paper, Agha outlines the threat that climate change presents to Palestine, how it is exacerbated by the Israeli occupation, and the steps being taken, or not being taken, to prepare for it. I spoke with Agha about what climate change means for the future of Palestine and the Middle East, and how it should fit into the Palestine solidarity movement agenda.

Adam Horowitz: I should start with that while I think about Palestine a lot as part of my work, the rest of my brain is somewhat obsessed with climate change. I was completely fascinated with your paper, so thank you for that. To help set the context, can you tell us what Palestine will look like with if the world warms in the way that experts predict, which the best case scenarios seem to be between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius?

Zena Agha: I’ll issue a caveat before I answer that and say I’m not actually an environmental expert. You know the work that I was doing was very much engaged with the question of how this very real environmental phenomenon, which is climate change, reinforces an already vulnerable political problem. And my findings were that for the most part, it’s an entirely political problem. Adapting to climate change in Palestine is a political question much more than it is environmental. But of course there are profound environmental impacts.

The two main effects or risks posed by climate change in Palestine are increased temperatures and precipitation changes – rainfall. It’ll be warmer, and temperatures have already increased on average by 1.5 degrees in the area of the Mediterranean Sea. The ClimaSouth Project predicts that temperatures will continue to increase between 2.2 to 5.1 degrees Celsius which is higher than the global average. This will of course have a cataclysmic effect on the region, particularly with regards to accelerating desertification.

This is coupled with the likelihood of decreased precipitation. ClimaSouth anticipates in the eastern Mediterranean region that there will be a decline in rainfall of up to 30 percent by the end of this century, which is 80 years from now. But that’s not to say that there will be no rains at all: what rain there is will become more concentrated, so there will actually be an increase of flash flooding in many of the countries in the region that don’t have the infrastructure to deal with intense rain. And then of course add to that rising sea levels and encroachment of saltwater into coastal aquifers, which threatens a lot of coastal communities, including Gaza and along the Mediterranean coast with modern-day Israel. And so out of that you see that climate change will severely affect the Mediterranean and particularly Palestine/Israel.

But although the climate effects are very real, how they impact those living on the ground will be hugely disproportionate.

Palestinians, particularly the most vulnerable Palestinians, those occupied Palestinians in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, will be feeling the effects but infinitely more than say a Jewish Israeli either in a settlement or in modern-day Israel. And so these are the sort of political questions that I was much more engaged with. Palestinians are constantly in a reactive position. If it’s not Gaza, or the Golan, it’s the Israeli elections all in the space of a few weeks. It doesn’t really give you much breathing space to actually get out ahead of the issue and talk more long term about equally disastrous, if not more disastrous issues, including climate change. So this was sort of the impetus for the project, an attempt to step out of that emergency mode and think more long term. And more seriously about what these environmental shifts which will affect Planet Earth, how they will play out in an already vulnerable and volatile region such as Palestine/Israel.

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