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We Weren’t Ready For a Pandemic, We’re Certainly Not Ready For the Climate Crisis

The collapse of the premise of global capitalism, the necessity for global cooperation, the role of science and what’s most urgent to do in Israel | Rony Erez and David Dunetz from the Heschel Center for Sustainability in an interview to mark Earth Day

Jonathan Kershenbaum, and Mor Huppert, 22.04.2021


In the early days of the pandemic, it seemed that the heavy cloud of the coronavirus had silver linings at least: the empty roads due to traffic restrictions, and the factories that were closed due to the closure of the economy, led to a decrease in air pollution in many cities globally. One of the worst health disasters in modern history proved beneficial in contending with the most urgent global challenge of our time – the climate crisis.

By the end of 2020, it was already clear that these were false hopes. The decline in global pollution amid the coronavirus period was negligible. Yet might lessons from the pandemic, and tools developed by world governments to contend with it, also serve us in contending with the climate crisis?

Rony Erez (36), Co-Executive Director of the Heschel Center for Sustainability, claims that “the coronavirus was addressed in a state of emergency, like a cast on a broken leg. Naturally,” she says, “we want to go back to where we were before the pandemic. But if we succeed in learning from this crisis that it’s possible to make big decisions, to have a broad impact on people’s lives, then we can gradually effect deep change with democratic tools, which will also contribute to the struggle against the climate crisis.”

This is not solely a question of principle. A report published by the “Climate Change Adaptation Administration” on the occasion of Earth Day, today (Thursday), defines the climate crisis as a “strategic threat to Israel.” In the absence of significant change, the climate in our region will become warmer, drier and more extreme, with temperature peaks alongside torrential rains and floods. These changes have already claimed human lives in the country, and are liable to have significant economic and geopolitical implications.

The Heschel Center for Sustainability in Israel, locates the connection between issues of social justice, social cohesion, and democracy, with environmental and climate-related issues, at the core of its vision. As far as the center’s staff is concerned, the coronavirus pandemic reinforces the urgency of adapting the socioeconomic systems in Israel and around the world to the challenges of the period, and primarily those posed by the climate crisis.

The Danger Intensified

In this context, Dr. David Dunetz (64), head of the Center’s Climate Program, is less optimistic than Erez. “Of course you can see the glass half full in this coronavirus story,” he explains. International cooperation. Scientific achievements are evident, and the need to listen to scientists is also very fitting in the context of the climate crisis. “In both cases, there are groups that think that science can be denied, and it seems to me that the danger in that has greatly intensified among decision makers.”

“But,” he warns, “what we do know is that the climate crisis is much more complicated than the coronavirus crisis. We learned that we were not prepared for a pandemic — and we are certainly not prepared for the climate crisis. What we saw amid the coronavirus doesn’t bode well for our engagement with the climate crisis, and one of the central aspects is the lack of trust in government institutions, which has only increased. Trust is necessary for democracy, and for democratically contending with the climate crisis. Without trust in the government and the steps it’s advancing, we’re in trouble.”

The sense that science has defeated the coronavirus is liable to exacerbate further danger in the context of the climate crisis. Dunetz refers to it as “technological optimism that represses the climate crisis.” The belief that science and technology will soon find a solution to the problem.

In his words,” Technologies are currently being developed to capture carbon from the atmosphere, and some people think it exempts us from the need to change course, but it doesn’t come close to any measure of what it takes to contend with the situation we brought upon ourselves. To think that there will be a magic solution is a dangerous illusion. The only means of addressing the climate problem is to reduce emissions.”

From the Coronavirus to the Climate Crisis, Via the Economy

Erez and Dunetz agree that the coronavirus is likely a dress rehearsal for contending with the climate crisis. You may certainly learn from it — but you have to do so swiftly. The key, they say, lies not only in considering crisis management, but also, and perhaps most importantly, in re-examining the foundations of the global economy and governments’ roles in navigating the economy and society. Economic discourse is also one of the fields in which they say contending with the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis intersects.

What has the coronavirus done to global economic discourse?

“The coronavirus has traumatized us to a degree, but what happened throughout the coronavirus proves what we have been saying for years,” Dunetz says. “It’s not pleasant to be proved right about it, but the fact that a global crisis can occur and halt the economy, disrupting our lives, is the environmental thesis we’ve been talking about for 20 years already. A nasty virus managed to do that.

“The crisis indicates that the premises of neoliberal capitalism, which have come to be accepted in recent decades, are collapsing. Even conservative governments are already using tools we would never have imagined prior, such as unpaid leave and widespread government investment. This will increase, and it proves that it is certainly possible to emerge from the fixed box of economic assumptions.”

He refers to the huge sums that governments worldwide have poured into the economy to rescue their countries from the crisis. As well as the voices increasingly sounded, calling for the ongoing expansion of budgetary policies to fund huge investment programs in transitioning to green energy infrastructure. These plans are explicitly aimed at achieving two goals at once: both to extricate the global economy from this crisis, and to commence an unprecedented process of reducing carbon emissions.

There are clearly those who call for a change in the economic approach. And it is clear that governments have invested large sums in contending with the crisis. But are there really examples that justify spending on the coronavirus through a new economic logic, linked to the climate crisis?

“The Americans have set themselves the goal of building back better,” says Erez. “The new administration has introduced considerable actions around contending with the climate crisis in the economic plans it presented in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. The European Green New Deal is also already being implemented. Work is being conducted toward achieving net-zero carbon dioxide emissions. It is evident that parts of the world are seizing the opportunity to rethink this issue.”

“Biden was mockingly called Sleepy Joe, but he’s not sleepy at all,” says Dunetz. “He’s using all possible tools, much more so than Obama and all his predecessors, to produce renewable energy infrastructure. It’s truly a Green New Deal, like in the 1930s after the Great Depression. With an emphasis on creating jobs and tackling climate change through very ambitious means. This idea of building back better and more equitably is becoming much more central globally.”

Israel is Waking Up, But Slowly

The American president indeed surprised us. Prior to his inauguration, many presumed that his entry into the White House would set forth a return to the Obama administration’s hesitant policies, at best. In practice, this is an ambitious program that includes a trillion-dollar investment in generating renewable energy infrastructure alongside high-paying jobs. At the climate summit to mark Earth Day, Biden is expected to announce the goal of reducing US carbon emissions by 50% by 2030. In Israel, however, with the exception of a minor mention in the bill drafted by the Bank of Israel to emerge from this crisis, green energy investment is not on the agenda at all.

In Israel there is no Green New Deal on the agenda. Do you still identify a shift in climate-related economic discourse in Israel, as a result of having contended with the coronavirus?

“At the onset of the crisis, when there were still less than 100 confirmed patients in the country, the Heschel Center held an online seminar,” shared Erez. “We invited the economist Prof. Daniel Gottlieb, who was the Deputy Director General of Research and Planning at the National Insurance Institute at the time. The goal was to address economic tools for coping with global crises. We thought about the unpaid leave that was used in Israel, and the idea of a guaranteed basic income, around which discourse became much more realistic since the coronavirus. We considered whether they may also be used in relation to the climate crisis.

“At the time, Prof. Gottlieb said in all his professional sincerity that he thought the feasibility of it was very low. That many problems would arise. The next day he called and said that he had reconsidered it, and was interested in understanding it in more depth. He suggested getting together to write an article on the topic. So it’s true that unpaid leave is a problematic solution, and it’s a shame that people will not work or put their power and creativity to use. But this example indicates that tools that were considered taboo until recently, are becoming much more legitimate alternatives here, too.”

And there are forces in the country that know how to seize this momentum, which may influence policy?

“The environmental movement has submitted a green rehabilitation plan. ‘Life and Environment,’ the umbrella organization of environmental organizations in Israel, wrote an excellent document on green rehabilitation. In the last election campaign, the field of climate change was more present than in previous elections. There was also a movement-wide effort made by green voters to reach as many people as possible. We have already received inquiries from Knesset members seeking to form an opinion on the issue of environmental rehabilitation programs. So it’s true that it’s not as dominant as in the US and Europe, but I feel there’s an awakening.”

“Earth Day, which was founded in the US in 1970, was the reason for the founding of the American Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA,” adds Dunetz. “Our Ministry of Environmental Protection was founded in 1989. There’s a slow adaptation in the country, and we are at least a decade behind in that sense. There’s interest, but it isn’t taken into any consideration among the coalition; it doesn’t advance or demote any candidate. It’s not a major issue in Israeli politics. It may be in another 20 years, but we don’t have 20 years with the climate issue. We don’t have the privilege of letting this happen at the pace of Israeli politics — the window of opportunity to prevent a complete shock to the climate system is between five and ten years to radically offset carbon.

“Although Israel is not a significant player in its emissions, we have a responsibility to partake in this. We will be impacted by it one way or another. The Middle East is one of the areas where climate change is expected to be most felt. Twice the world average.”

Narrow Politics

Might part of the challenge in advancing this field in Israeli politics lie in the fact that the climate crisis is perceived as an issue that interests leftists?

Dov Khenin, formerly of Hadash (a left-wing Israeli political party) was one of the most active members of the Knesset in the field of climate change. He would say that Israeli politics is so narrow that you can do almost anything other than settle or evacuate territories without it being labeled right or left-wing. But our politics are often blind regarding several issues. Gila Gamliel, the Minister for Environmental Protection on behalf of the Likud party, actually adopted much of the existing global discourse, yet the question of whether Israel will start playing with the major league in this field, remains open.”

“The issue of the leftist image greatly disintegrated during Gila Gamliel’s term,” Erez reinforces. “Ultimately, she was the minister who spoke most ambitiously about the climate crisis, and she did a great deal throughout her term. I don’t think it’s a matter of left and right anymore.

“But still, we are among the last countries to do so in the west. The climate bill presented this week is an enormous effort, especially on behalf of the Ministry of Environmental Protection. What’s encouraging is that the law adopts the Heschel Center’s primary recommendations on renewable energy: a goal of 50% renewable energy by 2030, and a gradual decline as of 2035 to a carbon-neutral economy, which is an ambitious goal. Unfortunately, the law does not contain economic tools, such as taxation or budget incentives. It is a very moderate climate law relative to other countries.

“There is currently a commitment to reduce emissions by 27% by 2030, yet in reality if we do not reach 50% by 2030, we will not be able to reach a reduction of 85% to 100% by 2050, which is what is needed to prevent catastrophic warming. We do not relate to this issue with the same innovation and creativity with which we relate to other matters, as a startup nation.”

Local Answer to a Global Question

Erez and Dunetz point to another aspect shared by the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis: although these are global challenges, their implications, and to a large extent the most efficient strategy for contending with them, are found at the local level.

“Another thing the coronavirus has highlighted,” says Dunetz, “is the necessity to cultivate resilience in human beings. Communal, urban resilience. Many of the solutions need to be accessible at the urban or neighborhood level. In many places wherein mobilization has occurred, is has been evident that it is possible to do wonderful things and develop societally.

“The state of New York has set a much more ambitious goal for its carbon footprint than that of the US federal government. By 2040 the entire electric supply there will be free of carbon emissions, with net-zero emissions by 2050. That’s at the state level, and it’s primary application will likely be in New York City, which was in stark contrast to the wind blowing through Washington.

“Such crises always harm the weak more. This is true of both the coronavirus and the climate crisis. There’s something important here that we must learn, how we build support systems for all populations in Israel.”

And how is that actually done?

“Among other things, we need to create green jobs and invest in vocational training. Help people whose professions are going to change or disappear, in preparation for the new world of work. We must update the means through which we carry out existing work, such as agriculture. Promote local agriculture of quality food and the growth of local food farming, within cities, too, and a campaign to promote smarter more economical food consumption. In general, the local issue is of importance here.

“A community investment fund that will enable residents to make decisions about investing in local infrastructure, with the guidance of professionals, is a good idea for example. It’s possible and necessary to invest in public transport, which is a long-term investment, but also requires more immediate solutions like bicycle lanes. We see very ambitious plans on municipal levels in many places around the world.”

“I think one of the things we learned from the coronavirus is the power that cities have,” says Erez, who managed the sustainability department of the Holon municipality before joining the Heschel Center. “The city must be central because of the potential it has to influence the lives of its residents. It is also very relevant regarding the climate crisis. Urban planning must be part of the plan to counter the climate crisis in Israel, too. Planting. Natural shade. Green space in Israel must be seen as infrastructure that requires investment.

“Regarding Israeli policy, alongside the transition to renewable energies, the most urgent matter is to stop building in open areas. It will help to both prevent flooding and allow more water to seep into aquifers. We continue to coat the country with more and more concrete and it will take revenge on us.”

A strong sense of urgency arises from Erez and Dunetz’s words. The change of consciousness in Israel and around the world has begun to take place, yet it is not at all certain whether it will succeed in bringing about the necessary policy changes in the near future. And the near future, they claim, is all we have in order to avoid catastrophe.

The global coronavirus crisis is far from over. The clear course of events is that the immediate medical challenge will push the far less noticeable climate challenge out of the public eye. If world leaders choose to harness the means of coping with the coronavirus to create a breakthrough toward a greener future — it will solely occur if the public demands it of them. This would certainly be a worthy civilian legacy in memory of the over three million victims of the pandemic worldwide, with over 6,000 deceased from the coronavirus in Israel alone.

To read the article in Hebrew:

“לא היינו מוכנים למגפה עולמית, למשבר האקלים אנחנו בוודאי לא מוכנים”