Better energy: A missed opportunity for Israel at the UN Climate Summit

By YOSEF I. ABRAMOWITZ || 09/16/2014 || Jerusalem Post / JTA

This Jewish New Year is different than all past ones, for it is the last observance of shmita – the sabbatical year for the environment.

The largest climate march in history will hit New York City three days before Rosh Hashanah, demanding urgent action ahead of the special UN Climate Summit and the General Assembly of the world body. Less than two years since Hurricane Sandy killed 285 people and caused over $60 billion in damage, a quarter of a million people are expected to flood the streets of the Big Apple, including a large multifaith contingent that will march together.

This Jewish New Year is different than all past ones, for it is the last observance of shmita – the sabbatical year for the environment – before extreme climate change becomes irreversible.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers just released their latest Low Carbon Economy Index, with the damning news that the major economies are falling further and further behind meeting their carbon reduction goals.

Israel, which has much to offer the world on climate change, was distracted this summer by the fighting in Gaza and did not prepare sufficiently for the UN Climate Summit. Most major democracies today have senior climate advisors to their foreign ministers; Israel does not. Great Britain even fields 80 climate officers throughout its embassies worldwide and France is about to do the same. It is time for Israel to name a senior climate advisor and integrate a climate plan into its foreign policy.

Imagine if the prime minister or foreign minister took to the UN podium and instead of speaking about Gaza and Hamas, outlined an Israeli vision for beating back climate change and transforming the lives of hundreds of millions of people on the planet. Indeed, there are 1.5 billion people today on the planet without access to power and Israeli innovations in the field could play a positive role.

Israel is uniquely suited to provide leadership on this issue. We are converting our coal-fired plants to natural gas, cutting power plant emissions by half. The “start-up nation” is innovating when it comes to energy storage, a prerequisite for using solar power at night. While we failed with our first attempt at electric vehicles, there are lessons to be learned to help economies make the transition from gasoline in transportation to a cleaner electric future. And we are expert at risk management, which enables us to develop renewable energy projects in Africa and other remote locations.

Positioning Israel in the international arena as a positive player against climate change is not only in our national interest, it is a global Jewish imperative.

The liturgy for the upcoming Days of Awe is haunting. Who will live; and who will die.

Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, which erased over 6,300 names from the Book of Life nine months ago, was super-charged by the warming waters of the Indian Ocean and the higher sea levels due to the melting of the ice caps – who by water. The severity of the droughts across sub-Saharan Africa threaten millions of lives – who by thirst – and even California is suffering its worst water shortages and wild-fires – and who by fire. The economic devastation alone of climate change – prices for water, food and energy will go up for billions of people – coupled with the unprecedented loss of human life, is like no other physical and moral challenge that humanity has ever faced.

Enter the Jewish people.

Let’s not fool ourselves: We are a small people, contributing a fraction of a fraction of the nearly 40 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide that trap more and more heat in our atmosphere, creating the devastating greenhouse effect.

Yet there are four things we can uniquely do as a people that can turn the tide against this global challenge.

FIRST, SWELL the march on Sunday, September 21.

There are about two million Jews in the New York area, so we can have a disproportionate impact at a historic inflection point.

Second, lead by example. Jewish federation and foundation endowments, with total assets of over $60 billion, should this shmita year divest from all carbon-intensive businesses, like oil, gas and coal companies. Every Jewish institution and family can calculate their carbon footprint and offset it by planting trees via the Jewish National Fund or other carbon offset programs. Nigel Savage, of Hazon, challenges us to become the first carbon-neutral people on the planet.

Third, invest in Israel’s renewables technologies and companies so that Israel can become a global platform to solve climate change. And even though the environmental movement in Israel is starving for donations, we succeeded two weeks ago to stop a major oil shale endeavor. This historic victory over carbon can be an inspiration to environmental groups fighting big oil everywhere.

Fourth, offer hope. Recent international conferences meant to fight climate change are speaking more and more about how to mitigate the negative impact of climate change. With the exception of Sir David King, climate advisor to the British foreign secretary, and a handful of Jewish energy pioneers, few believe we can win the ultimate climate battle.

Yet those of us who had the good fortune to grow up in the Soviet Jewry movement are very familiar with the area in front of the United Nations. We know what it means to conduct and win an unprecedented global ethical campaign. The Jewish people are at our best when we represent the value of hope in history.

This is our gift; this is our responsibility. And time is running out. See you Sunday, September 21 at 11 a.m. in New York City. Shana Tova.

Named by CNN as one of the six leading “green pioneers” on the planet, Yosef I. Abramowitz is a co-founder of the solar industry in the State of Israel and serves as CEO of Energiya Global Capital, a Jerusalem-based developer building solar fields in Africa and elsewhere.

This column is adapted from a JTA op-ed penned by the author. He can be followed on twitter @kaptainsunshine.