How to flip Israel's climate policy

In a survey of 10,000 young people around the world, scientists have found that climate anxiety of the next generation is widespread.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett, US President Joe Biden and Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson attend a reception at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow earlier this month.  (photo credit: Alberto Pezzali/Reuters)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett, US President Joe Biden and Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson attend a reception at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow earlier this month.
(photo credit: Alberto Pezzali/Reuters)

In the land of the holy, Twain’s desert was bleak, Herzl wrote of green trees sprouting from blue boxes, and clean waters in creeks. The Zionists came and realized the dream! Yet then came the plastic and pollution in streams. The government of change told the kids of the land, “Thank you so much for taking a stand.” Yet business is business – and business must grow, step on the gas real fast, and maybe the kids won’t know…

Five-thousand six-hundred and forty-two miles from the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel, Stephen Donziger spent the last several months in a Connecticut prison cell, wondering what else he could have done differently to warn Israel.

Donziger, 61, who has salt-and-pepper hair, a boyish face, and is a graduate of Harvard Law School, is the world’s most famous climate prisoner, having won a $9.5 billion settlement against oil giant Chevron for their role in what has been dubbed “the Chernobyl of the Amazon.” That role included an untreated set of nearly 1,000 gluppity-glup oil pits that poisoned the exotic trees of the rain forest, and the Ecuadorian tribes that live there: Secoya, Cofan, Guarani, Quechua and Siona. Chevron not only refused to pay, but they also went after Donziger in kangaroo courts, and then hopped into the Israeli energy market by purchasing Noble Energy.

“The people of Israel are warned,” says Donziger. “Chevron is a powerful, unethical company, and they don’t respect the countries they work in. Beware, they will use every trick in the book to get what they want.”

Indeed, an independent report from Dr. Nan Greer on Chevron’s worldwide activities concludes that “Chevron appears to be the most destructive and contentious oil and gas company in the world, routinely and viciously violating human and environmental rights around the world.”

The Chevron Pascagoula Refinery is pictured as Tropical Storm Gordon approaches Pascagoula, Mississippi, US, September 4, 2018. (credit: REUTERS)The Chevron Pascagoula Refinery is pictured as Tropical Storm Gordon approaches Pascagoula, Mississippi, US, September 4, 2018. (credit: REUTERS)

During a special Knesset hearing in September 2020 in the Interior and Environmental Committee, an Energy Ministry official admitted that Israel did not look into Chevron’s environmental or climate record before approving their entry into Israel’s territorial waters and easily manipulated energy market.

The day the acquisition went into effect a month after the Knesset hearing, Chevron cut off gas to the Israel Electric Company to extort a 33% increase in price.

Israel quickly capitulated.

“I tried to warn you,” says Donziger. “But nobody listened.”

SECURITY WAS tight for the 120 world leaders who gathered in a summit that was billed as the last, best chance to save the planet from irreversible climate change that will unleash super-storms, extreme droughts, pandemics, rising sea levels and more and more wildfires brought about mostly from the burning of fossil fuels.

In a survey of 10,000 young people around the world, scientists have found that climate anxiety of the next generation is widespread. Over half said governments are betraying them, while 61% said governments are not protecting them, the planet, or future generations, according to a study published in Lancet Planetary Health. Furthermore, 75% of those surveyed said they feel the future is frightening, while 64% said governments are not doing enough to avoid a climate catastrophe

Alma Pornagrin, 15, and Lia Lev, 16, were sent by the Israeli branch of Strike4Climate, the local affiliate of the global Greta-inspired movement, to represent Israeli youth in Glasgow and to deliver a climate letter on behalf of “The Next Generation,” read the cover of the envelope, to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who led the Israeli delegation and was scheduled to speak.

Bennett, new to the world stage, had begun speaking about climate change at home and confided to this writer that at Glasgow “Israel’s climate policy is al-hapanim, right?,” loosely translated as “embarrassing.”

In his summer visit to the White House, Bennett got a taste of some quiet climate diplomacy from President Biden; Vice President Kamala Harris, whose ambitious climate vision is partially inspired by Israel’s Arava reaching 100% daytime solar in 2020, called President Isaac Herzog to encourage Israel to do better than a 30% renewables goal by 2030; and Presidential Climate Envoy John Kerry encouraged Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg and Energy Minister Karin Elharar at a pre-COP26 OECD ministerial gathering in Paris for Israel to nearly double the pledged 27% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) UN report, all nations need to cut about 45% of their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to keep global warming to a manageable additional 1.5 degrees Celsius since methane – gas – accounts for 25% of the warming of the planet. The US has made a 50% reduction pledge and the European Union a cut of 55%. And since methane – which powers Israel – accounts for 25% of the warming of the planet, Kerry pushed for a global methane pledge at COP26.

“A 2% degree rise is a death sentence,” Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley hauntingly said at the opening of COP26, speaking for the island nations, which represent about a quarter of the votes at the United Nations. “We must act in the interests of all our people. If we don’t, we will allow the path of greed and selfishness to sow the seeds of our common destruction.”

Two days before Glasgow began, about 12,000 young people marched through the streets of Tel Aviv in Israel’s largest climate march. “COP26 will determine the fate of those who have not yet been born and for those who are already here,” said Tomer Gertel, 18, from the stage in Rabin Square. “And Israel is going into Glasgow empty-handed – without declaring a climate emergency, without a climate law!”

Indeed, the previous government promoted gas as Israel’s energy of choice, which is cleaner than coal when it comes to particles in the air but deadlier because methane is more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere.

Yuval Steinitz, former energy minister, saw the goal of bringing a major oil and gas company into Israel as the potential crowning achievement of his tenure. To do so, he had to assure Chevron executives red-carpet treatment: cleaning up costly oil spills and condensate from gas spills will be largely on the tab of the Israeli public, the defense of the gas rigs would be borne completely by the Israeli taxpayer, the companies would have locked-in high prices for their gas, and a 70% monopoly to fuel Israel’s electricity market for another generation. “When an American company of such a big size and with tremendous resources joins the Israeli market, the possibilities to promote the energy sector in Israel become limitless,” Steinitz said.

On October 5, 2020, Steinitz got his wish. And then Chevron extorted a higher price by cutting off Israel’s own gas.

Hopes were initially running high in the Israeli delegation to Glasgow that the prime minister was going to surprise the world with a pledge of 50% renewables by 2030, instead of the current modest goal of 30%, and to declare a climate emergency. Israel’s fossil fuel lobby opposes these goals. Instead, Bennett ascended the platform and promoted Israeli innovation as the solution to climate change, and his only commitment regarding zero emissions was leaving it to his successor’s successor, by 2050. Meanwhile, the Finance and Energy ministries are approving gas and pipeline deals that extend well beyond 2050, only 28 years from today.

Even so, the girls waited anxiously at the perimeter of the Blue Zone, hoping to hand their petition to the prime minister. They were on a mission to accomplish what President Biden, the climate marchers, Israel’s environmental movement, President Herzog, and Tamar Zanberg couldn’t.

It’s not that Bennett doesn’t want Israel to be a world leader on renewables by example. He does. The premier wants to boost Israeli climate-tech, and knows he has to get his burning house in order on climate to do so. Indeed, last month was the hottest recorded November since Israel started keeping track, which included massive wildfires that recently swept the hills leading up to Jerusalem.

Yet, unlike his predecessor, Bennett is more inclined to listen to his ministers and give them an opportunity to lead. In the coalition agreement, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid became foreign minister and alternate prime minister, and his party colleague Karin Elharar became energy minister. Elharar, dependent upon an electric wheelchair, keenly understands her responsibility for dependable energy security for Israel’s citizens, which has translated into no change as of this writing in the plans for dozens of more pipelines at NIS 2 billion taxpayer expense, the continuation of drilling licenses on land and at sea, and an openness to additional gas-fired power plants.

She, like Bennett, wants Israel to be able to commit to ambitious renewables goals, but is struggling against an unsupportive Public Utilities Authority, the electricity regulator controlled by the Finance Ministry, which promotes the current and future gas deals. Elharar’s boss, Yair Lapid, is a former finance minister who undermined the solar industry in Israel  in favor of the gas deals and it is unclear where he stands today on the issue.

Getting to a 50% renewables goal by 2030 is viable – even easy – but the people around Elharar don’t have the experience of creating solar markets When I walked into the regulator’s office more than a decade ago and handed in the first license application for a solar field, they were adamant that there will never be solar fields in Israel. And when we finally presented in 2009 a government decision for Israel to adopt a 20% renewables goal by 2020 like the European Union, the Finance Ministry cut it down to 10% at the cabinet meeting and, through the regulator, WHACK!, chopped it down in practice to 6% – the lowest in the OECD.

At a toast for the Israeli delegation at Glasgow, Elharar emphasized her commitment to solar power. Alma and Lia were there as well. “We are not interested in talk about promoting renewables, but action,” said Lia. “And we haven’t seen any yet.”

Earlier at the Blue Zone, the girls waited anxiously with the envelope, but security ensured that they were two buildings away from even getting a glimpse of the prime minister. A friendly member of the Israeli delegation swooped in with a higher security clearance badge and escorted the excited girls to the plenary entranceway. They waited. And waited. And waited.

When a kippah was spotted, the girls snapped into action, rushed the internal security barrier and called out to the prime minister in Hebrew. There is a midrash that says when the messiah arrives, the hearts of grown men will be like children, and the youth will be as grown-ups.

The prime minister was doing the world-leader-determined-power-walk thing. But when he heard the girls, he turned around. They called out asking to speak to him about climate change. He paused his walk. His detail encouraged him toward the hall, but he took five steps forward and approached Alma and Lia.

“We are from the youth for climate group,” one said.

“All the way from Israel?” asked the PM.

“Yes! We have a letter for you from the youth of Israel asking for more climate action to save our future.” And they handed him the envelope.

The prime minister handed it to an aide.

“The youth of Israel are asking that you set higher renewables goals for 2030.”

“Let’s talk about it when we get back home, OK?”

“Will you meet with us?”

“Yes. Now let’s take a picture.”

Mission accomplished! But was it? 

The week following COP26, the Knesset dedicated itself to its annual Environmental Day, the biggest to date. Eleven committees, from Foreign Affairs to Arab Affairs, held hearings on environmental and climate issues; members of Knesset from across the political spectrum spoke in the plenary; and the highlight was the inauguration of the Knesset Environmental and Climate lobby, held in the round Jerusalem auditorium.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg sat next to chairman Yorai Lahav-Hertzano (Yesh Atid), with Gila Gamliel (Likud), Mosi Raz (Meretz), Prof. Alon Tal (Blue and White) and Amichai Chikli (Yamina) serving as co-chairs. The session was packed with veteran environmental leaders as well as several teen activists. There was a sense of celebration in the room, that perhaps civil society and the Knesset would force the government to finally pass an ambitious climate bill to drastically cut emissions by at least 50% like the United States and the European Union and declare a climate emergency, as nearly 50 other nations have done.

Lahav-Hertzano tried several times to introduce a video from Lapid. As foreign minister, Lapid had been surprisingly silent on climate. Even though Yesh Atid received high marks during the last election campaign from the Green Voter Initiative, Lapid needs to win over Democrats in the US and maintain good relations with the climate-threatened island nations that consistently vote with Israel in the UN. Here he was about to make his first public statement since Glasgow on climate.

The New York Times recently ran a guest essay, “Worrying About Your Carbon Footprint Is Exactly What Big Oil Wants You to Do.” It outlines the strategy of the oil and gas companies to transfer responsibility for climate change from the fossil fuel industry to individual actions to reduce consumers’ carbon footprints, by doing things like reducing consumption of red meat, driving cleaner cars, insulating their homes – but not changing the fossil-fuel-centric energy policy of governments.

“What do fossil fuel companies prefer?” wrote Auden Schendler. “They like consumers and corporations to do anything and everything as long as they stay out of the companies’ way and avoid doing anything that could actually make a difference... (which) allows fossil fuel interests to monetize their remaining assets unhindered, ensuring catastrophe for all.”

The Lapid video was finally working. Here are the words of the head of the party that controls the Energy Ministry:

“Our children want to know what we are doing so that they won’t be living in a world polluted, choking, with extreme floods, extreme weather from heat and cold, and with a coast that can simply disappear. This is not a discussion at all on climate; it is a discussion about personal responsibility. About the decisions that each of us takes... what trash are we leaving behind in the park after a barbeque, are we willing to take two minutes to separate out our trash. If each of us has taken a part in creating the climate crisis, then we are not too small. It also works in the opposite direction. If each one of us, whether in Haifa, Shanghai, in Tzfat or in Stockholm will change a little their habits, we can change the larger picture.”

The script of US oil and gas companies came out of the mouth of the alternate prime minister in the Knesset on Environment Day, a week after the United Nations Climate Conference. Could Yair Lapid be the grinch who stole Tu Bishvat – the Jewish Arbor Day (or New Year for Trees) which is celebrated as an ecological awareness day that begins at sundown on January 16?

Miki Haimovitch, chair of the Heschel Center and former chair of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee from Blue and White – who oversaw the hearing about Chevron’s heavy-handed track record around the world – chimed into the microphone: “It is not just about personal responsibility, it is also about government policy.”

Sitting directly across from Haimovitch around the inner circle of tables for Knesset Members and other green dignitaries was Netta Meshulam, 16, from Tel Aviv. “Israel today is advancing investments in fossil fuels, displacing renewable energy,” she said. “We are demanding a climate law. Put your climate commitments into law. Act according to the IPCC report of the United Nations and commit to targets for renewable energy and reduction of emissions of 50% until 2030 and 100% until 2050.”

The good news for Netta, Tomer, Alma and Lia coming out of Glasgow is that Israel actually did sign John Kerry’s Methane Pledge to reduce by 30% emissions of this deadly greenhouse gas by 2030. This would undermine the gas monopoly that currently dominates Israel’s energy landscape. The bad news, pointed out Tamar Zandberg, is that the current business-is-business-and-business-must-grow gas policies of the Energy and Finance ministries “won’t cut our emissions but will actually grow them by 13% by 2030.”

Unless....  ■

Yosef Israel Abramowitz serves on President Isaac Herzog’s Climate Forum, on the board of Life & Environment, and as CEO of Energiya Global Capital. He often hangs out with youth climate activists, speaks for the trees for the trees have no tongues, and can be followed @KaptainSunshine