10 reasons Israel supporters should confront climate change

Almost exactly a year ago, in Paris, the world reached an unprecedented level of consensus regarding the climate crisis and a plan for collective action. The Trump administration is in the process of rolling back significant environmental legislation and achievements, including a range of climate-related policies. Yet he and his political allies claim to be great friends of Israel. But this isn’t just about Trump. The same could be said for many – Jews and non-Jews alike – who are critical of the environmental movement and its goals, yet are staunch supporters of Israel.

Yet these two stances are in conflict. On the one hand, the very real and present dangers of climate change have significant negative repercussions for Israel. Conversely, the social and economic opportunities that serious climate responses afford can be a great boon for Israel’s entrepreneurial economy. Now that prominent conservatives are promoting climate change mitigation policies, perhaps it’s time to break out of the party-political straitjacket of pro- and anti- environmental stances, and see both the threats and the opportunities for what they are.

The climate change issue is part of a larger conversation about what it means to be a sustainable society. Though having become politicized in the United States, and pulled in different directions by commercial and other interests, the idea of sustainability is clear, broad-based, optimistic and forward thinking. Sustainability refers to a large-tent social and political agenda that has at its core the vision of a just society with a robust democratic economy and a healthy environment, now and for future generations.

It is important to emphasize that sustainability is much more than economic efficiency, or a cleaner environment. It’s about building a society that can sustain us and our children, materially and spiritually, now and in the future, together with the awe-inspiring world we live in and are a part of. Many consider sustainability – and the shockingly unjust and unsustainable nature of the society that we have built – to be the central moral challenge of our age.

In the past, the environmental movement was stigmatized as dealing with luxuries or issues peripheral to the core concerns of survival and overall well being. But now it’s clear that the primary goals of a broad social-environmental movement – safeguarding the air we breathe and the water we drink, the ability of farmers the world over to feed their fellow citizens now and in the future, meaningful productive employment for workers, affordable clean energy, healthy cities that serve the needs of their citizens – are the foundation for the continued welfare and development of the human race. Likewise, despite other issues grabbing all the headlines, the core issue of the future of the State of Israel is sustainability: social justice and public health, infinitely renewable sources of energy for development, robust local economies, neighbors and citizens uniting together to promote the common good.

Israel exists on the eastern side of the Mediterranean basin, in a semi-arid climate in a world that is heating up. Will it be able to guarantee the security of its citizens in that world? Will it be able to feed them, and ensure the basics of life for them, for now and for the generations to come?

Here are 10 reasons why if Israel’s flourishing is important to you, then climate and sustainability should be too:

1. Security

A key factor in many of the worst internecine conflicts the world over – Nigeria, Darfur, Syria, and more – causing regional destabilization and massive upheavals of populations, is climate change-caused or exacerbated droughts and famines. Israel is the thick of this, and its, and the world’s, future is dependent on a stable climate that will not destroy rural livelihoods and foment desperation and violent struggles for subsistence.

2. Energy

Israel is far too reliant on foreign energy sources, and fossil fuels in general. It’s crazy that our sun-drenched Middle Eastern country lags far behind northern European countries in our use of solar energy and other renewables. Some tout fracking and oil shale as the path to energy sovereignty, but these are dirty technologies that both severely endanger groundwater sources and threaten air quality and public health. A world without energy cartels, and with renewable energy independence will be a safer, cleaner place for Israel, and every democratic country.

3. Water

Israel has registered some impressive successes regarding water policy and technologies, making it a world leader in creating solutions for the 21st century global water challenge. That in itself is worth celebrating and supporting. But we also need to recognize that highly energy intensive desalination contributes to climate change, and may itself become a victim of its impact, with the rise of sea levels, and the need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. Continued decreasing precipitation and decreased aquifer recharge, and worsening droughts in many areas of the Mid-East, mean that one significant piece of the water crisis puzzle has to be climate change mitigation.

4. Agriculture

While a warming world may actually be good news for the farmers of Siberia – for Israel it does not bode well. As in the business world, a stable and predictable environment is necessary in agriculture to plan for the future, and to flourish. Certain technologies can be a buffer, but drought and invasive pests threaten the production of staple crops. The ability of Israel to feed itself over the long term is dependent upon a healthy diverse ecosystem, with fertile soil, and stable growing seasons.

5. Public health

Climate change specialists speak of “co-benefits” that accrue from systemic responses to climate change. For instance, reducing fossil fuel consumption leads to improved local air quality. Reducing climate change impact of precipitation could lead to fewer and less intense forest fires, such as those that devastated Israel last fall. Likewise, climate disruption is changing the habitats of disease vectors that could lead to the spread of hitherto rare pathogens. Stabilizing the climate is one of the most important things we can do to contribute to public health.

6. Economic Opportunity

The combined markets of clean tech, greentech, water-tech, renewable energies, etc. that can produce initiatives in climate change mitigation and adaptation reach into the trillions. Taking the challenge seriously, and applying the world famous Israeli entrepreneurial spirit could be a boon for Israel’s economy, that would not only contribute to survival, but could boost Israel’s position as a world leader, in these fields and in general.

7. Jewish Arab Solidarity

There is little shared social space between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arab citizens, and few issues of import that are of equal and shared concern. The environment is a big one: we all breathe the same air and drink the same water, and health and justice are concerns of all. Many of the issues that Israeli Arabs experience discrimination in (mobility, municipal budgets, planning rights and resources) are part of the sustainability agenda, and fighting together for reducing disparities creates a shared citizenship where everyone can contribute to the common good.

8. Planning and Land Use

With a high birth rate and a high immigration rate, Israel has very high overall population growth, and a high population density that is only rising. Whether one believes that this should be encouraged or moderated, the need is clear that one of the key issues that will ensure that Israel remains a livable country in the years to come is how we address the issues of urban planning and land use. Will we have affordable housing? Will we be wise enough to implement sustainable transport policy? Will we steward and foster our open spaces? Will we promote a healthy balance and relationship between urban and rural? These are core issues of sustainability, and of Israel’s future.

9. Urbanism

This lead to the question of how we build our cities. In Israel, as in the world, a majority of citizens live in cities, which have become the cutting edge of sound environmental policy and practice. With its new light rail system being built, Tel Aviv has joined Jerusalem and come around to seeing the wisdom of available mass transit, but overall, one of the best ways to help Israel is to support the development of smart, resilient, productive, sustainable cities, home to vibrant communities and cultures, and hubs of strong local economies.

10. Jewish Values, Zionist Visions

Zionism at its core is a back-to-the-land movement. We have taken responsibility for a piece of the Earth for the first time in 2000 years , so it behooves us to ask: how are we doing? Are we taking good care of it? Are we tilling and tending it as the Bible commands? Are we leaving the land of Israel in a better state for our children and their children? While there are some mixed responses, increasing pollution and loss of biodiversity, to name just two issues, show we need to improve our track record.
And Jews around the world can make this an inspiring Jewish concern. As the 2013 Pew study states, “being Jewish was most attractive if it spoke to and connected with another part of someone’s identity.” To put it another way: to be authentically true to ourselves we must be true to something greater than only ourselves. And this means that there is a purpose to Jewish life that goes beyond pursuit of our self-interest as individuals and even as a collective. There is nothing more breathtakingly global, and at the same time, more groundingly particular as the Jewish commitment to taking care of Creation, and the small piece of it that many of us call home.

These are ten leading issues that show how central sustainability – including climate change – are to Israel’s well being. While some issues are local, and can or must be addressed internally in Israel, some require global engagement, and thus mandate supporting American policy to combat climate change through international policy work.

This is also a Jewish educational and communal challenge. For more insights on the interactions between sustainability, Israel and Jewish peoplehood – see this publication of Project Siach and the Jewish Peoplehood papers. From that report:

[A] polluted, gridlocked Holy Land is no beacon to anyone. An exporter of solar energy and a clean-tech superpower, with open spaces for enjoyment and green belts around our livable cities – that is an Israel to rally behind.

About the Author
Dr. Jeremy Benstein is Associate Director of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv, and the author of The Way Into Judaism and the Environment (Jewish Lights, 2006).
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