By Rony Erez, Co-Executive Director, the Heschel Center for Sustainability
Originally published in Ynet on December 11, 2022
In Greek mythology, we learn about Cassandra, who knew how to predict the future. But since she refused Apollo’s advances, she was cursed so that no one would believe her prophecies. And so, Cassandra was forced to see how her prophecies were rejected, and the disaster she was trying to prevent happened before her eyes.
For years, the character of Cassandra was used to describe the plight of environmental activists and scientists, for understandable reasons. But now, after returning from the climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, I think we need to look for a new tragic figure to identify with. Cassandra at least got to be ignored because no one believed her. At COP27, I witnessed, and the whole world as well, that although there is no dispute about the truth, the world follows its old ways. No one doubts that the disaster resulting from climate change is imminent. And yet, world leaders do not act to prevent the catastrophe.
It is probably just a coincidence that COP27 was held shortly before the FIFA World Cup tournament in Qatar. Apart from the proximity of time and geography, there is a striking feature that connects the two events: the failure of the international community to stand, even ostensibly, behind its values and declarations.
Billions watch night after night games played under declarations of brotherhood, fairness and friendship. But so many of those billions know these statements are false. The games will take place in stadiums that during their hasty construction killed thousands of workers, in a country that does not respect women’s rights and persecutes LGBT people, that supports terrorism in various parts of the Middle East and that obtained the right to host the World Cup, among other things, through a round-trip transaction with France, which linked France’s support for Qatar’s bid to host the World Cup and the purchase of French fighter jets by the militant Emirate. FIFA’s agreement to hold the games in an environment that is so openly hostile to the values it supposedly represents is equivalent to the UN’s agreement to hold the climate conference under the auspices of a polluting multinational corporation.
And this is exactly what happened in Sharm el-Sheikh. Beyond the absolute cynicism of the phrase, “climate conference sponsored by Coca-Cola”, the blatant and visible contradiction between the way the conference was to exist and its goals was hard to contain. It is not just the fact that the Egyptians chose to host the 40,000 participants of the conference in a place that was not prepared for it, and therefore hastily built constructions that were cooled using a polluting battery of generators. But above all, the demonstrators were conspicuous by their absence.
In all the previous COP conferences, the heart of the event was always outside, with the demonstrators. The environmental movement originates from these tremendous social energies, which motivated opposition to “business as usual” that governments and corporations sought to lead in the face of scientific predictions that predicted global warming as early as the 1980s. But in Egypt they were absent. The Egyptian government is not known for its tolerance, to put it mildly. The restrictions that the Egyptians put in place completely prevented the existence of the civic-international movement that usually accompanies these conferences.
In the absence of public pressure and with the loss of shame, it was not surprising to see – but still horrifying – that representatives of many countries tried to roll back some of the agreements reached last year in Glasgow. In Scotland, the leaders agreed on a mechanism of constant examination and review of the states’ commitments to reduce emissions (the “ratchet” mechanism), and that in 2025 there will be a “peak” of carbon emissions, after which they will decrease. In Sharm, the leaders deleted the commitment to a “peak” in 2025, and only at the last moment was the deletion of the ratchet clause avoided. The only significant achievement was the agreement on the establishment of a fund to support the poor countries facing climate damage. It should be noted that between the establishment of the fund and its financing there is a gap that has not yet been bridged.
In light of the blatant and shameless failure of the international community to deal with the great challenge of our time, the question arises, where shall we direct the blame? What will we do with the clear and distinct failure of politics and diplomacy?
Among the veterans of the environmental movement there was a slogan: Think Globally, Act Locally. This slogan is still valid today, but with necessary additions: we must work more deeply, and more broadly. Instead of the piecemeal approach of trying to close individual, polluting factories, we need to create a new model for the economy and its entirety that does not produce pollution and poverty as by-products. And across the board – we need to connect more and more groups and populations, to create broad frameworks of civil solidarity, which work together to shape a democratic economy and society. False conflicts between “the environment” and “society” should be avoided (as in the case of workers in polluting factories or the end consumers of plastic cutlery), and alliances and communities should be created.
I do not ignore the fact that even at the local level it seems that democracy and solidarity are taking blow after blow. However, in the face of the challenges and the failure of the leaders, we are not allowed to give up. The men and women who make up civil society organizations should fill the void left by the leaders.