COP26: Saving the planet in Glasgow from climate change

COP26 DIARY: Israel’s message to the world: Don’t panic – we made the desert bloom.

PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett addresses the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow on Monday. (photo credit: Natan Zach/GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett addresses the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow on Monday.
(photo credit: Natan Zach/GPO)

GLASGOW – Although a lot of positive things happened for Israelis at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow this week, the biggest headline in Israel was probably that Energy Minister Karin Elharrar could not get into the event.

Elharrar, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair for mobility, arrived at the Scottish Events Campus on Monday in her accessible taxi, but it was not allowed into any of the entrances. The prime minister’s staff, Israeli Embassy staff and others tried to help her find a way in. She was offered to ride a shuttle – which was not wheelchair accessible, either. She was taken from one entrance to the next over the course of two hours, before she gave up.

The outrageous story first hit the Israeli media and was later picked up by the BBC and others in Britain. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett immediately expressed his outrage and said that Elharrar’s accessible vehicle would be part of his motorcade the next day. He brought up the matter with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who apologized and invited Elharrar to join the premiers’ meeting the next day, where Johnson apologized to her in person.

The event organizers chalked up the shameful incident to an unfortunate oversight, but it’s easy to view it as indicative of how, in the zeal to save the planet, some forget about the people who live on it.

Saving the planet from pollution, rain forests from destruction, and species from extinction sounds like things anyone can agree on, and that may even need drastic action.

 An image of Earth is projected on the venue for COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland Britain, November 1, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/HANNAH MCKAY) An image of Earth is projected on the venue for COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland Britain, November 1, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/HANNAH MCKAY)

But who are we saving the planet for? If the answer is for the people who live on it, then there are some strange things about the way this issue is dealt with.

SOME OF the most prominent voices on climate are downright Malthusian or, to give a more recent reference, sound like Thanos, the villain in the Avengers movies who kills half the world in order to, by his logic, save it.

To these people – including MK Alon Tal who wrote a book about it – there are too many people. Having children, having families, is a sin, because the world is going to end anyway. They don’t quite have answers as to which people are the extraneous ones, and which are worthy of survival, or answers to what the point of saving the planet is if humans are supposed to drive themselves to extinction.

Some have the nihilistic take that the world is going to end anyway and all is lost.

Due to climate change, “public order will break down, and it will happen quickly because people will get hungry,” Roger Hallam, founder of Extinction Rebellion, said in a YouTube video directed at young people this year.

“People will break into stores and into houses and take what they can and kill those that stand in their way.... A gang of boys will break into your house demanding food. They will see your mother, your sister, your girlfriend, and they will gang-rape her on the kitchen table. They will force you to watch, laughing at you," he said.

“This is the reality of climate change, because this is the reality of social collapse, what it actually means for you and your generation. They’re not going to tell you this at school.”

Both of these schools of thought clearly have a very bleak view on humanity, which leads them to forget about human ingenuity. Thomas Malthus’s theory that food production will not be able to keep up with human population growth has been proven wrong time and time again because people have found new ways to grow and produce food.

Israel is the obvious case for this. A huge chunk of our country is desert, so we figured out how to farm in the desert. We didn’t have enough water, so we figured out how to use minimal water for agriculture, and then we became leaders in desalination.

But throughout the world, modern technology and, human ingenuity have brought billions of people out of poverty and extended life expectancies by leaps and bounds. Why can’t we do the same for climate change?

AND THAT'S what brings us back to COP26. With the exception of a sideshow outside the conference center from teenager-cum-prophet-of-doom Greta Thunberg, the apocalyptic view of climate change was not actually on display.

Instead, world leaders talked about what they will do to counter the global problem, and a big focus was on how they’ll pay for it.

The developing world is getting less poor all the time, but it still, justifiably, wants a greater piece of the technology and modernity that the Global North has. (Global North and Global South, coined in 1969, are less hierarchical terms for the "developed" and "developing" worlds.)

Moving to renewable energy sources is generally more expensive and much more difficult to scale for a large population than oil or gas, and could slow down the developing world’s progress. And the fact that the Global North is trying to force that on the Global South has been criticized as a form of neo-imperialism by people ranging from a protester outside COP26 playing Darth Vader’s Theme on a boom box to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who did not even grace the conference with his presence.

But some of those countries just want wealthier countries to help them. Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley gave a memorable speech at the climate conference, saying her nation is extremely vulnerable to climate change, but that there must be solutions.

“We do not want that dreaded death sentence, and we have come here today to say ‘try harder,’” she said.

It’s the responsibility of the whole world to chip in and help, she added.

“Are we so blinded and hardened that we can no longer appreciate the cries of humanity?” she asked. “If our existence is to mean anything, then we must act in the interest of all of our people who are dependent on us.”

In 2015, the world pledged $100 billion a year to support the nations of the developing world in their quest to continue to advance their economies while adapting to the challenges of climate change, but the amount of money actually given has fallen far short of that mark.

ISRAEL IS considered a developed country, able to help in this effort, but has not pledged aid. However, Israel’s development agency Mashav does do a lot of agricultural training that can help countries adapt to farming despite desertization and droughts.

Bennett was very focused on touting Israeli technology as a solution in his address at COP26 and in many of his conversations with foreign leaders. He touted Israel’s commitment to net-zero carbon by 2050, and his government’s plan to support and push innovators to come up with new technologies to help Israel and others to reach that goal.

Israeli climate activists have criticized the government for not going far enough with its commitments, and are exasperated by the general public’s apathy over the issue. But the government is trying to strike a balance between growth and climate change mitigation; environmentalism doesn’t have to roll our progress backward.

And as for the public, the common theory is that Israelis don’t care that much about the environment, because we’re worried about a more immediate existential threat – that Hamas or Iran or other enemies might try to kill us.

But there may be another reason Israelis aren’t in a Thunberg-level panic, one that Bennett’s approach reflects: If there is any nation that believes in the power of technology to solve problems, it’s Israelis. After all, we made the desert bloom.

THERE WAS a lot of criticism of how much pollution the climate conference caused. A reported 400 private jets flew into Scotland this week. It is highly questionable whether Leonardo DiCaprio really needed to be there, even if he is the celebrity most known for environmentalism, or whether it was truly necessary for Johnson to fly in from London.

But looking back on Bennett’s two days in Glasgow this week, it’s clear that he had to be there, even if it required flying in.

That he met nearly 20 world leaders and held bilateral meetings with seven of them made the whole thing worthwhile. For him to get one-on-one face time with Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron, whose countries are parties to the Iran deal, made it not just worthwhile but essential.

One palpable success of those meetings is the thaw in relations between France and Israel, after cell phone numbers belonging to Macron and other French cabinet members were included in a list purported to be of targets of Pegasus hacking software, which is made by the Israeli company NSO and was sold with authorization from the Defense Ministry. French-Israeli bilateral ministerial meetings have been called off since the scandal broke, shortly after Bennett’s government was sworn in in June. But three days after the Bennett-Macron meeting, Science and Technology Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen was able to meet with her counterpart in Paris.

It remains to be seen whether Bennett succeeded in promoting bringing other countries on board to support Israeli technological solutions for climate change, but it looked promising in Glasgow.

OF COURSE Bennett needed to be there, you may say, but what about everyone else?

The criticism about the size of the Israeli delegation was disingenuous, as well. It made sense for Elharrar and Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg to be there to meet with their counterparts – and as Zandberg said in this week’s Jerusalem Post podcast, the advantage of being there in person and not over Zoom was that she was able to have spontaneous meetings with people she encountered, as well, which were fruitful.

Talk of 130 people in the delegation, as though this was an extravagant and wasteful trip, is an exaggeration. Security made up a large chunk of that number; Bennett was one of the most secured people in Glasgow. Media outlets paid for journalists, who were also counted in the delegation. Plus, unlike in other countries, the Environmental Protection Ministry helped NGOs, academics and businesses get their credentials for the conference, and therefore their representatives were considered part of the delegation.

That being said, everyone whose hotel was booked by the Prime Minister’s Office – government representatives and media – stayed in Edinburgh, an hour away from COP26. Some better advanced planning could have allowed Bennett’s motorcade and the rest of the delegation’s buses to use less gas, in the spirit of the conference.

But it’s still nothing compared to the 400 private planes.•