Our leaders must choose — climate silence or science

Hurricane Sanday has driven home the reality that our leaders must choose between climate silence and climate science -- before it's too late

Even before the landfall this week of super-storm Sandy, the total absence of climate change as an issue in the American presidential elections has been – given the summer we just endured – inexplicable. Recent months have provided palpable, painful and ample evidence that climate change is real, now and dangerous. In addition to 2012 being the hottest summer on record for the planet, a wide swath of North America experienced the worst drought in 70 years. Unusually massive wildfires in the American west encroached ever closer to population centers. The arctic ice cap melted to its smallest size ever, and polar ice and glaciers are disappearing even faster than original climate-change models predicted.

Yet, the American elections are upon us, the Israeli national elections are in full swing, and we’ve still heard nary a word from the candidates on global warming. In the face of this silence on climate change, the climate itself has finally spoken with a roar, and has made itself an issue in the elections. As if on cue, after the record temperatures and record drought of the summer, the fall has brought us Sandy, a rare super-storm of record size and record storm surges, caused at least in part by the record sea-surface temperatures in the north Atlantic. The flooding, winds, and power outages for millions in the US have ground early voting to halt, campaigns were suspended, and some disruptions will likely continue until Election Day. Moreover, new research by NASA this summer confirmed that these extreme weather events are not random but in fact caused by global warming; they are predictable, and were in fact predicted.

So it’s hard to disagree with MSNBC journalist Chris Hayes when he opines “Climate change is the greatest governing challenge we face, it is the greatest governing challenge I think we’ve ever faced.  One way or another we will have to drastically reduce the amount of carbon we put in the atmosphere.” For our societies to muster the will and resourcefulness to effectively and urgently address climate change will require a paradigm shift for all of us. Leading this thinking, environmentalists themselves are beginning to realize that it’s not really environmentalism anymore, because it’s not just about the environment. It’s about no less than advancing dignified human life on this planet.  What we are witnessing, in fact, is the dawn of the sustainability movement.

Sustainability is a relatively new term, in common use only since the ’90s, and because it is linked to so many fields of human endeavor, a universal definition remains elusive. The most widely quoted definition, from a UN commission in 1987, relates to sustainable development, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” But the term needs further elaboration to catalyze the movement that will save life on this planet.

Sustainability must comprise three pillars: a sustainable environment, in the traditional sense: healthy oceans and open spaces, flourishing biodiversity in all our ecosystems. To achieve this, we need sustainable economic development, a Green New Deal, based on clean energy. We must advance not just green industry; we must green all industry, and find ways to de-couple economic development from environmental degradation. And for both of these, we critically need sustainable social processes — robust democracy in which decision-making is transparent at the national and municipal level, and which involves maximum participation of the citizenry. This, and only this, will foster real trust in the political system — the trust necessary for this triangle to work.

Wind turbines in Spain (photo credit: Chen Leopold/Flash90)
Wind turbines in Spain (photo credit: Chen Leopold/Flash90)

Science has proven beyond a doubt that man’s impact on the planet is not sustainable for us. And not just because we’ve over-fished our oceans and over-harvested our forests. It is because the greenhouse gas emissions currently required to power human development are incontrovertibly causing a global warming that, if it won’t kill us all, will make life miserable for billions.

We know what we have to do. In the developed world, we need a much cleaner energy mix, and quickly. Germany is showing us how – on windy, sunny weekends, the Germans get over half their power from renewable sources. Two billion Chinese, Indians and Brazilians, knocking on the door of development, will be making the transition from poverty to middle-class in the next couple of decades. We need to assure they get more development with less greenhouse gasses.

After positing climate change as “our greatest governing challenge” Chris Hayes goes on to say that “the scale and scope of that undertaking [putting less carbon in the atmosphere] will be every bit as transformational as the industrial revolution, or the transition to the digital age.” Indeed it will. The sustainability movement declares that man created these problems, and man, through innovations and breakthroughs known and currently unknown, will solve them.

Israel is a little country big on innovation and entrepreneurship. We are blessed with abundant sun, and pretty much invented solar power decades ago. We invented drip irrigation too, and we reuse more waste water than any other country on earth – by a lot. Israeli firms are working all over the world to connect the start-up nation to the green revolution, to harness Israeli technological and social innovation to bring sustainability to every corner of the globe. So this – as well as the moral imperative for Israel to reduce its own per-capita carbon footprint – is why we should be hearing more about climate change, its implications and solutions, here in Israel.

In America, the green social media, abuzz with indignation about the virtual “climate silence” in the American election campaign before Sandy, are now breathless. A petition circulating massively claims that both Obama and Romney “have remained stubbornly silent on the immediate and profound task of phasing out a carbon-based economy. Their failure… imperils our nation and prevents the development of a national and global plan to respond to the most urgent challenge of our era. It’s time for their climate silence to end.”

It would behoove politicians everywhere to stop ignoring our greatest governing challenge. Like all of us, our leaders need a paradigm shift. To paraphrase an iconic quote from a different presidential campaign, they need to realize “it’s sustainability, stupid.”

About the Author
Jay Shofet is the director of partnerships and development at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the oldest and largest environmental nonprofit organization in Israel. He previously served as the executive director of the Jerusalem-based Green Environment Fund.