It was a handful of visits to the beach in Israel with my wife and daughter that have driven the climate crisis home like no other. Observing seashells going extinct and tar balls making a comeback, I started seeing the fingerprints of the fossil fuels industry all around us.
The Herzliya coast in central Israel has a special meaning for me. I frolicked in these beaches as a child, I reported about their demise as a junior environmental journalist, I even worked for a few years in a cinema overlooking a stretch of this Mediterranean seafront.
But returning there with our two year old daughter turned out to be a mixed bag of emotions.
I love seeing how ecstatic she is about the sand, the waves, the seashells, the open air. She just loves the sea.
I was holding our daughter’s little hand as we stood in the water, letting the waves swarm under our feet. I’m so happy to be there, I told my wife, and I’m so happy our daughter has a chance to have this experience, one that I so fondly remember from my own childhood.
But there was also some tense undercurrent. It wasn’t just the responsible parent in me constantly on guard to make sure my little one is safe. It was also a certain drive — maybe journalistic — to observe, to touch, to experience first-hand some of the phenomena I had mostly heard of.
And they sure were there. This idyllic scene, with the crisp sand and the chilly water and wide open view. All this tranquility was tainted by the climate and ecological crises. It was here, in the place that is possibly the farthest from our daily grind that these calamities touched us.
The sea was stormy during one of those visits to the beach. Like a hungover teenager, it was throwing up on the sand some of the waste we humans have been feeding it for far too long. Harmless as they may seem, tiny pieces of colorful plastic dotted the shoreline. I simply had to snap a photo with my mobile, and wonder — is this a new thing, or have those plastic flakes always been there and I just overlooked them?
The next thing that crossed my mind was that 2016 report which warned that, on current trends, microplastic pollution is set to outnumber fish by 2050. More plastic than fish. By the time my daughter is 30. That is unfathomable.
Except that wasn’t even the only thing that got me horrified.
On some visits, I was busy looking for seashells with my daughter. It was all new to her. “What’s that, dad?” she’d ask a hundred times. “That’s called a seashell,” I’d answer each and every time, savoring her curiosity.
But at the back of my mind was a study I had read about in the beginning of 2021. It said the Israeli coast was, effectively, a climate crime scene. According to the authors, mollusc populations on Israel’s Mediterranean coast have shrunk 90 percent in the course of twenty years, just half my lifetime. This trend, the researchers concluded, represents the world’s sharpest decline in ocean life, driven by the climate crisis.
Sure, a handful of visits wouldn’t really help confirm or disprove the findings of a several years long academic study. I guess I just wanted to see those seashells I had remembered, and show them to my daughter. I wanted to know they are not completely gone.
Yet, I was after a particular mollusc, the murex. Not that I remembered the name, but I thought I remembered that round, rhombus-shaped shell. It might not seem like anything special, but studies have shown that in ancient times one of these gastropod species was the source for the highly prized tekhelet dye. This turquoise color has traditionally been used in Jewish prayer shawls which, in turn, inspired the design of the Israeli flag.
I couldn’t find any murex shells during our coastal forays. But — much more alarming — neither could the scientists behind the January 2021 paper, despite sampling multiple locations during four years.
Where I did eventually find a couple of murex shells was at my parents’ attic. I pulled out the small plastic filing cabinet that housed my childhood mollusc collection. The teenager I was had carpeted one of the drawers with blue felt to give it the look of the nature museums I had visited, and glued some of the more exciting seashells I had found on the beach.
And there they were — two murex specimens, lovingly collected by a boy who found them special. And special they are. I held them again, almost three decades later, realizing younger me might have unwittingly kept a pre-climate crisis memento for my daughter.
Back in February and March, Israelis were flocking to the beaches in the aftermath of a dramatic oil spill. Hundreds of tonnes of tar are estimated to have washed up on the Israeli coast with gut wrenching images of young sea turtles covered in the black slime circulating on social media. For a few weeks, citizen-organized clean up operations throughout the Israeli coast were one of those beautiful moments that showed how Israelis can mobilize in defense of something that is so dear to us.
Thankfully, during our beach time, we didn’t come across any of the sticky, black tar balls that littered the seashore north to south just a few months earlier. And it’s not that I wasn’t looking.
For me, tar in the sea is something that belonged in history. As a child, we would conclude visits to the beach with scrubbing tar off our feet with brush rollers placed at the exit. I haven’t seen tar, or scrubbers, for many years now. Until we got to Dor Beach.
Dor Beach is one of those picture-perfect strands — a wide, sandy beach overlooking three islets. The water is clear and there are even little fishing boats marooned in the shallow waters. I mean, this beach is so well taken care of it’s even decorated with the international Blue Flag label. And that’s also why I was so surprised — in fact, deeply disappointed — to see again a couple of those tar scrubbers.
As kids, tar sure was annoying but felt as normal as having to wash sand off our feet upon leaving the beach.
Researchers have found that the source of this pollution was likely leaks from the many oil tankers that used to sail in the eastern Mediterranean, carrying crude oil from the Persian Gulf.
Owing to a host of international treaties and national regulations, tar balls are no longer part of the landscape on Israeli beaches. Except a secret deal signed in October 2020 foresees a major expansion of oil deliveries via the old Eilat-Ashqelon pipeline, from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, to facilitate deliveries of UAE crude to Europe.
More oil tankers have already been arriving in Eilat, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, since the beginning of the year, dramatically raising the risk of an oil spill that could devastate the unique coral reefs nearby. And Israeli environmental groups are up in arms, not least since it has been revealed no government ministry had given the green-light to this deal, signed by the state-owned pipeline operator. In fact, as of late September, Israelis have been mobilizing to call for the annulment of this deal in weekly demonstrations throughout the country. And on December 20, the Israeli High Court of Justice is expected to rule on a petition filed by environmental groups.
The Dor Beach in recent years has also been at the heart of a major environmental protest. Plans to situate the gas rig of the Leviathan field just 10 kilometers offshore have sparked a substantial public outcry. The campaign eventually failed but it did help birth a grassroots environmental movement that today campaigns categorically against fossil gas.
And then, everything started falling into place: the tar scrubbers from the 1990s, the bygone murex shells, the plastic confetti, the recent oil spill, the Red-Med pipeline deal, the gas rig. Behind them all is the fossil fuels industry. And the fallout is not merely a pesky nuisance, it is the very breakdown of the global climate, a crisis of a magnitude humanity has never faced before.
Just when I was re-discovering the consolation of the sea, the dark, heavy shadow of the fossil fuels industry started revealing itself.
I do have to acknowledge, though, that it is a serious privilege if the climate crisis’s impact on my family is merely a heartbreak on the beach. Obviously, that is not the case. The climate crisis is already crippling our societies, whether we are aware of it or not. For families in Thailand, whose houses had been inundated, for babies in Australia who lost their homes to massive wildfires, for parents and kids in the Philippines who witnessed super-typhoon Haiyan devastating their neighborhood — for them and many others, the effects of the climate crisis are life-altering.
And I also realized, there’s another thread connecting the Dor Beach to Eilat to Ashqelon and Israel’s Mediterranean coast, and that is civil mobilization. Time and time again — whether it was the recent oil spill, or the Leviathan gas rig, or the UAE-Israel oil deal — Israelis simply refused things as they are and they forced policymakers to respond.
And perhaps that’s the most important point. The climate emergency we’re in warrants urgent civil mobilization, if on a scale that is larger than ever before. Because if humanity doesn’t change course soon, the Israeli coast — like that of many other countries — is set to look profoundly different by the time my daughter, everyone’s kids, return to these beaches their own children. And as a father, this thought terrifies me.
But there is another scenario, in which my daughter and me are standing in the water. She’s again holding my hand and then we smile and recall all those climate rallies we had attended when she was a child, the objections to gas power plants we had filed, and that eighth IPCC report that found that the international effort has managed to stabilize CO2 levels in the atmosphere. And now go figure how to explain to your granddaughter what’s oil, coal or gas when all she knows is that electricity comes from wind turbines and mostly solar panels. And perhaps we will even spot there on the sand that round, rhombus-shaped seashell.
Did this text get you upset? excited? Maybe you thought it was boring? I’d love to know what you think. Find me on Twitter at @IdoLiven or shoot me an email to ido [at] idoliven [dot] com.
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