We're now on the heels of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, which is being followed up by the "Bali roadmap," which is intended to lead to a binding agreement on emissions limitation within two years. This week, the Interior and Environmental Protection committee of the Knesset heard reports on the conference itself and on the state of "greenhouse gases" in Israel. The subject is complex scientifically as well as ethically. Briefly, carbon dioxide and other gases released in energy production have the effect of absorbing the sun's energy on the Earth's surface (by inhibiting radiation). This is called the greenhouse effect by analogy with a greenhouse, which admits light, but traps the heat thus produced (by inhibiting convection). Were it not for this effect, Earth would be a frozen wasteland like other planets. Humans have been using lots more energy in the past few centuries than previously, levels of CO2 and other gases have gone up considerably (about 30% since the beginning of industrialization) and a number of official scientific panels have reached a consensus that this is causing gradual warming of the climate. (Every time I write about this topic I get hostile talkbacks pointing out there is still scientific controversy about this subject. I'm aware of the controversy but enough people are convinced to make global warming a hot topic. The ethical analysis here is based, without prejudice, on the consensus of the international organizations.) Well, what do we do now? Even among those who are convinced of the situation, there is wide disagreement on what to do about it. The greenhouse gas problem is much different from that of other pollutants:
One problem is that even if we could somehow halt new CO2 production entirely, the billions of tons already released will stay put and so any warming already caused will not be reversed. Even under the most ambitious programs for reducing emissions (e.g. 25%), huge amounts of CO2 will still be released into the atmosphere, leading some to wonder if these programs will really accomplish anything. This is much different from other pollutants; many dissipate within a few hours or days, others within a few years, but cleanup efforts for sulfur, ozone etc. usually work rapidly.
Another problem is that the problem is only global. Regular air pollution is mostly felt where it is produced, so it is a national problem or in some cases a regional one. But CO2 produces virtually no local effects. If Israel alone produced greenhouse gases, the effect on the climate here would be only marginally greater than the effect on the world climate. So there is very little incentive for a single country to act alone.
A final problem is that even among people who agree with warming predictions, there are vast disagreements on how serious the problem is. It could turn out to be a catastrophe that makes Earth uninhabitable, or a mere nuisance necessitating only some more levees (for rising sea levels from melted land ice) and some more air conditioners.
Practically speaking, various international meetings have concluded that nations should reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. But what nations, and by how much? It would seem fair that the extent of reductions should be related to the following properties:
How much greenhouse gas a nation produces. A nation that already produces less per capita than comparable countries shouldn't be penalized for its prudence by having to make large reductions, while a nation with large output is rewarded for its prodigality by having a substantial quota left even after a 25% reduction.
How much the nation benefits from the reduction. Some nations, like those in sub-Saharan Africa at the edge of an encroaching desert, are heavily threatened by climate change; others, like Canada, are arguably benefited by a vast increase in livable tracts and arable farmland.
How much a nation can afford to reduce its emissions. A poor nation might have to endure immense hardship to reduce its emissions, while an advanced country could still maintain a high standard of living even with a slight contraction of national output.
Following Bali, feverish negotiations are going in with the objective of obtaining a binding international agreement on reductions.
How much of an ethical imperative does Israel have to take part in this effort? Let's consider the above criteria.
Current production. Israel produces a small amount of greenhouse gas because it is a small country, but according to post-Bali news reports our output on a per-capita basis is large and growing. So based on the first criteria participation would be appropriate.
Impact of climate change: The impact of warming is not uniform, and the fact that the world is getting warmer or drier doesn't mean that every location suffers this fate. On the whole, however, Israel stands to lose a lot more from becoming warmer and drier than does Canada.
Suffering from reduction: Israel is not as wealthy as the US or Western Europe, but it is an advanced country and is not dependent on industry as much as some countries. Another consideration is that the same kind of controls that would reduce greenhouse gases would also reduce ordinary air pollution, which would bring some benefits. An innovative econometric study by University of Haifa researchers Andre Tiraspolsky, Mordechai Shechter and Ruslana Palatnik concluded that the net costs of participation in a thoughtfully designed emissions reduction program would be relatively modest.
There is no reason Israel has to be a world leader on the topic of greenhouse gases, in which it has been and will remain a bit player. However, our contribution to the problem and our expected benefit from any arrangement are such that it seems fair and appropriate for us to take part in some kind of equitable scheme for reducing greenhouse gases and hopefully slowing global warming.
The author is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (www.besr.org), an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.