Politicians on both the right and left agree urgent action needed.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg takes part in the rally ''Europe Climate Strike'' in Brussels, Belgium, March 6, 2020.  (photo credit: REUTERS/JOHANNA GERON/FILE PHOTO)
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg takes part in the rally ”Europe Climate Strike” in Brussels, Belgium, March 6, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS/JOHANNA GERON/FILE PHOTO)

For years, environmentalists have tried and failed to convince Knesset candidates to join a debate focused solely on the environment. A group of teenagers succeeded in just three months.

Their efforts culminated in Thursday’s first-ever campaign debate on the environment, held in the auditorium at Hakfar Hayarok Youth Village for Environmental Leadership educational campus in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat HaSharon.

The debate featured: from the parties on the political right, Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel (Likud), lawmaker Alex Kushnir of the Yisrael Beytenu Party, Amichai Shikli of the Yamina Party, and Sharren Haskel of the New Hope Party; from the center, Yorai Lahav-Hertzano of the Yesh Atid Party; and from the parties on the left, lawmaker Tamar Zandberg of the Meretz Party, and first-time candidate Gilad Kariv of the Labor Party.

Around 30 high school students between the ages of 15 and 18 from the Strike For Future Israel youth movement took part in running the debate, sponsored by the national Life and Environment group, with two student representatives asking the students’ questions. “It’s very important that the public see how their representatives handle this topic,” Tamar Avraham, 18, of Even Yehuda, one of the students involved in the event, told The Media Line. “We want to make sure everyone thinks about the environment when they vote.”

Strike For Future Israel, founded in 2018, was inspired by Swedish teen environmentalist Greta Thunberg and the Fridays For Future movement she touched off whose members “strike,” i.e., skip Friday classes, to demonstrate outside Sweden’s parliament over its perceived inaction on climate change.The Israeli version of Greta’s global action group has approximately 900 teenage members. They combine “striking” with lobbying Knesset members to protect the environment, as well as digital activism on climate change.

One of their goals comes out of the Paris Climate Accord, signed by Israel in April 2016, which is to get the country to have 50% of its energy come from renewable sources by 2030, and to rely completely on renewables by 2050.Netta Meshulam, 15, from Tel Aviv, another student involved in the debate, finds inspiration in Greta.“We hear her speeches and feel her anger. We understand how she feels. We need to help her to tell the adults they need to act now,” Meshulam told The Media Line. “The Knesset members and parliament members all over the world are not working on the climate change crisis as they should,” she added.“

The whole public is talking about the environment more and more, and politicians have noticed. Just about every party that has a platform [includes] its position on the environment,” Abraham said.“We are also very cute kids so it helps. … It’s harder to say no to us,” she continued. “And we are very, very serious. We are not playing games here. We might be young but we… work really hard.”The teens’ concerns regarding climate change reflect the increasing importance of the issue among Israelis in general.“

More than 80% of the people think environmental issues are very important, and they expect the government to have ambitious goals and planning to deal with climate change,” Victor Weis, co-head of the Vote Green initiative and former head of the Tel Aviv-based Heschel Center for Sustainability, told The Media Line.As such, the environment has become, unlike it appears to be in the United States, an issue important to both conservative and liberal parties in Israel.“

All the parties have ambitious goals and they’re speaking on climate change, even if they are right,” Weis said.The universality of the environment as a political issue was demonstrated at the March 11 debate.“We need to take serious steps to meet the obligation of the Paris Climate Accord,” Kariv, a rabbi, an attorney and one of the leaders of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, told The Media Line.“

My goal is to remind people that issues of the environment are not disconnected from social and economic policies, and in that regard the Labor Party, the social democratic party, is the real green party of Israel,” he continued.“We need to make sure we are not establishing the future of the energy market of Israel [based] on only natural gas,” Kariv said. “We need to find a delicate balance between using this natural resource and promoting green energy. One of the ideas is to designate some of the profits from the gas market to establish new renewable energy centers.”Natural gas has become a hot political topic in Israel. Chevron, the second-largest US oil and gas company, announced in July it was acquiring Noble Energy and its stakes in the Leviathan (39.66%) and Tamar (25%) natural gas fields off Israel’s Mediterranean coast, becoming the operator of both.Israel relies on natural gas for most of its energy – much to the chagrin of environmentalists, and gas exports generate significant revenue.

Yamina’s Shikli, the founder of the Tavor Leadership Academy pre-military educational institute, located in Nof HaGalil (Upper Nazareth), told The Media Line that he believes the most important environmental issue is the reduction of air pollution from vehicles, which is the source of most of the pollution.“

We need to open public transport to competition and reduce commuting in private vehicles,” Shikli said. “Israel’s most recently discovered natural gas field will be active in two weeks. Israel relies on natural gas for most of its energy needs and this development could also be the start of Israel becoming a leading natural gas exporter in the region.”“Environmental protection is not a matter of right or left. We all strive for the same goal: clean air, clean water and protection of open and living spaces,” he added.Shikli said the disagreements among Israeli political parties are “only about the methods. On the left, there is a preference for heavy public spending and regulation, while the right prefers to produce responses based on incentives and minimum regulation.”

Weis said that while both left- and right-wing parties are eager to act on climate change, Israel’s religious parties are more hesitant.The environment is not at the forefront of the religious parties’ policy priorities, he explained. “We still have work to do with them; we think that the environment issue is very important to religious people,” he said.“

They are suffering because they don’t have good public transportation; the cities are very crowded and, looking forward to 30 years from now, they are going to grow and so is the environmental problem in those sectors,” Weis added.Getting people to understand the seriousness of global climate change is the biggest environmental challenge Israel faces, he said.“I

It depends on how you look at it, but I think the biggest challenge we have is awareness,” Weis said. “The question we need to ask ourselves is, how are we going to live our life? How is the next generation going to live, if they can live?” he added. “Most people don’t understand why it is so important. It’s not about our quality of life; our life depends on the environment,” Weis said, noting that it encompasses issues such as health and the economy.Meshulam said that increased awareness and education are additional objectives of the Strike for Future Israel movement.“

We want the Knesset to declare the urgency of climate change and that we all need to take action,” she said. “We want them to teach the kids even from first grade to know what it is.”“The fact that I learned about climate change outside of school, and not in school, is very frustrating. Why didn’t they teach me that we are in such a huge crisis?” Meshulam said.