According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah marks the birthday of the world. As we welcome in the new year, it is well to ask what sort of a year our earth had in 5782, and what sort of 5783 birthday greetings we might want to wish the only planet on which we will ever live.
Unfortunately, during the past year, the earth has felt the heavy burden of human proliferation as never before. In two months’ time, demographers tell us that there will be 8 billion people living on earth. (When I was born, the number was a mere three billion.) Each of us consumes natural resources and leaves behind heaps of garbage, along with a carbon footprint that contributes to rapid global warming.
People also take up space that used to provide habitat for nature. As expected, the number of creatures on the planet dwindles alarmingly: the United Nations reports that a million or earth’s species are now in danger of extinction. The scientific consensus is that the average population sizes of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970 has dropped by 68%. Most people are unaware of these shocking figures, which are almost impossible to internalize. Israel also faces a biodiversity crisis with one-third of vertebrate species defined as endangered. During the coming year, we need to do better.
Because the effects are considered to be largely irreversible and scientists say we only have eight years to change direction, it is well to highlight the climate crisis facing our planet.
Symptoms are acute and can no longer be ignored. Since last Rosh Hashanah, Greenland has lost 250 billion tons of ice. Islands are beginning to disappear, under rising seas. The frequency of extreme storms, forest fires and heat waves suggests that our vast planet earth may not be not be as infinite as we perceive it to be. Eight billion people are literally changing the weather.
Our promised land of Israel is actually defined as a “climate hotspot.” If the average annual rise in sea level is 3.6 mm worldwide, in Israel the number is twice as high. Present estimates suggest that by 2050 the Mediterranean will rise by a full meter. The rare “forest fire disaster” in Israel, has become an annual event. Last year fires scorched woodlands around Jerusalem that were painstakingly restored over the past century.
The year before, huge swaths of the lovely Beit Keshet forest near Nazareth paid the price for the rise in temperatures and increasingly desiccated conditions. And of course, we all know that Israeli summers are hotter than ever: for the first time we measured sizzling temperatures in Israel above 50º.
But Rosh Hashanah is not just a solemn harbinger of Yom Kippur judgment, where our fate is locked into the big book of life. It is time to consider how to change course. This year, it needs to be a birthday celebration for the planet where we make some significant commitments. The popular New Year salutation: “Let the year end and its curses; May the year begin with its blessings!” resonates ecologically.
BECAUSE WE can change. Indeed, we have already begun. Environmental blessings emerged during the past year that can be magnified and expanded in our efforts to return harmony between humans and the earth. For the first time, Israel recognized that it has a responsibility to join international efforts to stabilize the climate. At the 2021 UN Glasgow climate conference, prime minister Naftali Bennett promised that within 29 years, the country would have net-zero, greenhouse gas emissions.
In practice that means we will need to expeditiously shift to renewable energy; there will no longer be cars running on gasoline; any beef that we consume will need to be “cultured meat,” no longer involving methane emitting cattle; with 70% of our methane emissions coming from Israeli garbage dumps, we will need to recycle 100% of our trash. The list goes on and on. We know what we need to do. We just need the political will.
Who is with this program?
Some politicians have already begun to show they are with the program. Interestingly, the most impressive achievements are not found at the environment or energy ministries. National Unity Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton offers a refreshing example. She recently adopted a bold program of climate education for every school child starting in 5783: 30 hours of mandatory classes and activities each year to teach the next generation about the perils of the climate crisis and what can be done.
The Israeli army often serves as a pioneer in addressing societal challenges that are not military in nature. Here too, Defense Minister Benny Gantz has pursued an impressive course: As Israel struggles to produce a tenth of its electricity from renewable sources, the IDF already has 25% clean energy with a blueprint to reach 100% renewables by 2030 (even though national targets are stuck at 30%). The most cost-effective way to protect the planet is to waste less and conserve more. At a time when the army has expanded its activities, fuel consumption has dropped by 20% and water consumption has also dropped precipitously.
As chair of a new Knesset subcommittee on environment, climate and health, I held dozens of hearings, overseeing implementation of our climate strategy: We pushed the government until it boldly decided over the next decade to phase out the petrochemical industry that has long poisoned the air in the Haifa Bay. We identified the flaws in an important cabinet decision to dramatically expand tree shading in Israeli cities.
While the Knesset did not pass the final version of a “Climate Law,” an interim version made it through the first reading. It’s a start, but the present bill is far too timid. My sub-committee suggested numerous changes to bring it up to international standards.
Unfortunately, the premature disbanding of the Knesset stopped many of these initiatives in their tracks. But there is no reason why these efforts can’t continue. The environment should not be a partisan issue. There is a broad consensus among Israelis that we need to do a much better job of protecting the environment and stabilizing the climate.
As we look to the new year, we can hope that the curse of disunity and environmental negligence can be replaced by the stability that a broad, centrist, consensus government can bring. And with it, environmental blessings for our common future.
The writer, a National Unity Party MK, is chair of the Knesset subcommittee for environment, climate and health. He previously chaired the Tel Aviv University Department of Public Policy.