With Climate Change – Size Doesn't Matter

Lia Ettinger, The Heschel Center, published on 2 Feb. 2020 in Haaretz (Hebrew).

"Israel is too small to matter" is a common claim among government officials when it comes to (not) making climate policy in Israel. But this claim is both immoral and irrational. In this global crisis, no country is too small to matter – or to make a difference."

New research has raised the level of concern from imminent threats from the climate crisis. They "correct" the already frightening predictions, and warn that, by the end of the century, we may reach an increase of 5 degrees C., and more, and not the 3 degrees that they had predicted until now. The implications of this scenario are terrifying, but it seems that the only ones who have been truly able to understand the severity of the situation are those who will be the ones to experience the full force of the crisis in their own lives. The younger generation, headed by Greta Thunberg, have been demonstrating, and asking - how can you stand idly by when the extreme results of the climate crisis are already felt around the globe: massive fires, floods, storms and droughts, that have claimed numerous lives. Just what sort of world are you leaving us?

In contrast, "the responsible adults" continue with business almost as usual. That, despite the festive declarations and the commitments that world leaders took on five years ago at the signing of the Paris Climate Accords. Many believe that the very last opportunity to save the situation will occur at the climate conference this coming November, to take place in Glasgow, Scotland, where the world's nations are required to come with ambitious goals that meet head-on the challenges of the worsening crisis.

If you want to know what Israel is doing on that front, the official response is that we have ramped up our commitment. We will go to Glasgow with somewhat upgraded goals for renewable energies. The economists of the Ministry of Energy have analyzed the situation rationally, they have calculated costs and benefits, and have decided what we can allow ourselves, and what will improve the local situation here in Israel. According to their approach, Israel's overall contribution to the crisis is miniscule, and so in terms of the future of the planet, we're not really relevant, and so it doesn't really matter what we do.

On the face of it, this approach seems rational and considered, since after all, the size of Israel is about the size of an urban neighborhood in China. But I want to claim that this approach is not only immoral, it is actually completely irrational.

The climate crisis is a classic example of what is known as "the tragedy of the commons." This is a large family of results of decision-making processes, wherein rational self-interested behavior of all relevant parties lead not to everyone's betterment, but to the worst case for all. In order to solve these problems, all the participants need to be made aware of the situation, and adjust their behavior accordingly. And since the climate crisis is global, no country can solve it on their own, and so the solution can only be found in mandatory international agreements, binding on everyone.

The Paris Accords were celebrated in their day as a historic achievement. And, indeed, it was very impressive to see 195 countries reach an agreement on a common objective: halting the global rise of temperatures at 1.5 degrees C. But the weak spot of this accomplishment was that the accords had no teeth –

  • They do not obligate the signatories to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions according to the objective that was set;
  • An effective method of enforcement was not agreed upon;
  • Every country could decide for themselves how much they were going to contribute to the global effort to reduce emissions.

It is important to note that Israel chose an especially low goal, and even the "upgraded goals" are less than our relative share. But even if all the countries of the world would fulfill their obligations and their promises according to the Paris agreements, by the end of the century, the planet would heat up much more than the scientists thought then, and we will come much closer in the coming decades to the dangers of wholesale climate collapse.

In other words, the Paris Accords did not succeed in solving this tragedy of the commons. Most countries continue to behave according to their narrow vested interests, and, despite the threat of climate collapse, have not adopted the needs of the common good, that is – stopping the warming.

Is the situation hopeless? Is there a solution to this tragedy of the commons? Nobel prize laureate, economist Elinor Ostrum, has taught us that throughout history various societies and cultures have found diverse ways to prevent the tragedy of their particular commons, and succeeded in acting in concert, focusing on long-term benefits and the common good. Can this be done on a global level? That is our generation's greatest challenge.

Can we rise to this challenge? Will this be our finest hour? What must we do to ensure that we do what is necessary? The main thing is that we have to act exactly opposite to focusing on our narrow interests. We have to redouble our efforts to do more than our share.

We must implement all possible incentives to ensure a speedy transition to 100% renewable energy sources, increasing energy efficiency, rehabilitating nature, and moderating our crazy consumerist lifestyles. Alongside that, we need to enact sanctions against polluting behaviors and get rid of all the perverse subsidies that are still given to bodies and to activities that actively harm the commons. These policy directions will improve the quality of life in our small, crowded country: we will breathe cleaner air, eat more healthful food, and spend less time in traffic jams. In addition, tens of thousands of new jobs will be created. If we are wise enough to create a safety net for all those that will lose their current jobs in this transition, then everyone will come out ahead.

But will all this have an effect on global warming? Won't all the changes we enact here be negligible? We are about 1/1000th of the population of the world. The surprising answer is that we can have a much greater contribution than our relative share. It's called: inspirational leadership.

Countries who demonstrate that the change is not only possible, but also improves quality of life, increase the chances that other countries will join. As more and more countries and cities, societies and communities join the effort, creativity and inventiveness will also increase, and new groundbreaking technologies and social ideas will be developed, there will be a great deal of mutual learning and the pace of change will be accelerated.

The way to reach an effective and implemented climate agreement is to create a dynamic of competitiveness between leading countries, to show who can do more to address the climate crisis. If enough countries and cities compete in this way – then there is hope for us, and for the planet.

Standard economic cost-benefit analyses miss the big picture. It was this sort of social-economic way of doing things that has brought us to this point, to the edge of the abyss. The solution to the crisis is not technical or technological (though there will of course be important technological components to it). It is first and foremost a question of political will and willingness for social and cultural change. For this to succeed, we must all become involved citizens, and take part in the great tikkun, the repair, and the transition. It is essential that we not only understand but that we also feel what the science is teaching us: we have reached a stage of planetary emergency. It is too easy to repress that, and what that means, especially since we live in Israel and not Australia, and we haven't felt yet the full force of the crisis. But if we don't feel the implications of this truth, we won't succeed in acting in the only way that is rational: immediately and with all our resources to save the planet – our only home.

The Heschel Center for Sustainability works to promote a sustainable Israel: a just and cohesive society, a robust and democratic economy, and a healthy and productive environment for all its residents, now and in the future.