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Keeping hope alive as our planet ails: A Hanukkah message of hope

In this season of miraculous renewable energy, there are real steps you can take, including buying an acre of wildlife-rich habitat
Spider monkeys. (Courtesy, This is My Earth)
Spider monkeys. (Courtesy, This is My Earth)

Giving a lecture at the recent UN Climate Conference in Madrid turned out to be a confusing experience: On the one hand, it was surely a stimulating affair, filled with thousands of impressive environmental leaders from around the world, diplomats in suits and high heels, access to hundreds of fascinating ecological lectures and side events, a dizzying array of PowerPoint presentations and gimmicks about every conceivable aspect of global warming. As a professor of environmental policy, it was nothing less than an intellectual smorgasbord. But when I took a step back, if it was hard to deny the hard reality — that we were talking about the end of the world.

The COP or Conference of the Parties for climate change convenes in a different city every year. But the 2019 Madrid gathering should have been qualitatively different as well. It was the first time the UN had brought world’s leaders together after the IPCC’s alarming “1.5 Report.” The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an august, almost austere, body comprised of hundreds of the world’s top climate and natural scientists. Usually its reports choose to be extremely cautious, careful not to be prescriptive. The Panel’s editors meticulously stick to their role as objective experts, who only offer decision makers plausible interpretations of the complex science behind climate dynamics. The 1.5 Report was something of a departure from this long tradition of understatement.

For those used to muddling through the IPCC’s turgid analysis, the findings mark a change both in the level of certainty and the level of resolution presented. With 133 authors contributing from 40 countries, citing 6,000 recently peer-reviewed scientific papers, the picture painted is definitive. It is also grim: Human activity has already increased the average temperature around the world by 1 degree. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise globally; within a decade we will cross into the realm of a 1.5 degree increase; without drastic cuts in emissions, the planet will soon be 2 degrees hotter.

For the first time, the scientist specifically explained what a world of 2-degree temperature increase means. It is a world without coral reefs. It is a world where, every 10 years at least, there will be no ice in the North Pole in the summertime. It is a world with far more extreme weather events. It is a world where the displacement of millions of people continues apace.

And so it was, following what seemed like an uncompromising call to action from the conservative scientific community, that the world’s governments came together in Madrid. Many official representatives answered the call, arguing and pleading that all countries could and should do more to mitigate climate change. Especially desperate were the island nations, countries that will literally be erased, as sea level continues to rise.

But for any meaningful progress in international regimes, an international consensus is required. And Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Australia were not playing ball. They have fairly transparent, ulterior economic interests. The US, under Donald Trump, has long since left the playing field. Sadly, it is hard to remember a less productive, multi-lateral, UN environmental event.

So what are we to do? Despair and paralysis are surely one option. Cynicism and nihilism another. (I always refer to this approach as the “Danceband on the Titanic” strategy: We know we are going to hit the iceberg soon enough, so we might as well enjoy the party.)

Or alternatively, we can do something concrete in our own lives to create a new source of light in this discouraging darkness. And if enough people choose to do this, reality changes.

My colleague Dr. Dorit Kerret at Tel Aviv University has become an international pioneer in the field of Positive Sustainability. Bringing the insights of positive psychology to the environmental challenges of our days, she patiently reminds me that when people only hear about imminent disasters, collapse of ecosystems, droughts and the ecological Armageddon, they turn off. Rather than spurring them to action, a litany of bad news leads to paralysis. For people to change, they need hope. What we need to do is offer them small, concrete, positive steps that they can take to move forward. These should be things which are intrinsically pleasing and create a sense of satisfaction.

This is especially true for those environmental challenges which cannot be solved merely by a technological magic bullet, but that also require individual engagement. To state it in academic parlance: once environmental behavior satisfies people’s hedonic goals, the likelihood of it occurring increases significantly. In other words, a key challenge for environmental advocates involves promoting environmental behavior that makes people happy.

Proponents of Positive Sustainability offer a long list of specific things that people can do, and they all make sense. Most are not excessively ambitious: They are closer to “Meatless Monday” — than full-scale veganism. The logic is clear: losing 30 kilograms can seem like such a daunting task that one never bothers to start. Dropping a kilogram in the coming week by enjoying a pre-planned assemblage of exotic low-calorie delicacies, however, might be a good think to try.

Positive Sustainability finally brings us to this article’s punchline. It also explains the rationale behind the organization “This is My Earth” (TiME). A few years ago, Prof. Uri Shanas, among Israel’s leading ecological researchers and activist academics, came up with the notion that we need to give every person on the planet a way to get involved in conserving nature and preserving the world’s ecosystems. Using the extraordinary power of crowdsourcing, anyone, anywhere can go on line, and do something concrete to help purchase a biodiversity hotspot that is located on private land that is threatened with development.

Money raised from thousands of relatively modest donations from people in over 60 countries have already purchased and set aside habitats for jaguars and monkeys in the Amazon and Belize. Perhaps due to human “biophilia” (our hard-wired feeling of kinship with nature) saving the home of such glorious species gives us real pleasure.

And here’s the thing: preserving the forests may also be the single most important we as individuals can do collectively to combat climate change. The loss of forests globally on average releases almost 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. That’s about 10 percent of total human greenhouse gas emissions. In saving these iconic forests and keeping the carbon sequestered in their biomass, we undertake a critical intervention that helps stabilize climate for the future.

Hanukkah is upon us once again. Presumably, it has become the “renewable energy” holiday — based on the metaphor a tiny urn of oil keeping a flame going for eight days. But we also can shine a candle, by going on line and helping to purchase and preserve a 610 dunam biological hotspot in lowlands contiguous to the Eli Silencio reserve. Yes, these privately-owned lands are home to turtles and monkeys and salamanders and an endangered bird species, the Blue-billed curassow. But it is also thick with vegetation and trees that store copious amounts of carbon that need to be undisturbed.

Blue-billed curassow. (Courtesy, This is My Earth)

Positive sustainability probably was not first imagined by behavioral models and empirical psychological studies. To me, it sounds a lot a lot like the axiom from the Mishnah: “You may not have to complete the task, but you aren’t free to evade it.” This is season of miracles and giving and 2019 tax exemptions. Let’s do something to save the earth’s carbon stocks, while keeping hope and tropical rainforests alive.

About the Author
Professor Alon Tal, is the chair of the Tel Aviv University Department of Public Policy and a veteran environmental activist.
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