United Arab Emirates' President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan meets with Israel's President Isaac Herzog, during the Cop27 summit at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 7, 2022.
United Arab Emirates’ President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan meets with Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, during the Cop27 summit at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 7, 2022.Credit: UAE Presidential Court/Handout via REUTERS

Tamar Zandberg

Nov 7, 2022

The government that will be sworn in here in the coming weeks will be a nationalist, conservative and populist one. It will curtail the rights of women and minorities, deepen inequality, scorn peace and, if the threats of some of its members are carried out, work to change the system of government in a way that warps the judicial system and weakens the foundations of democracy.

So far, one issue has been absent from Israel’s political polarization. But it, too, is slowly approaching a watershed and threatens to occupy a prominent position in terms of the potential damage the nationalist, populist right could cause – damage that, in this case, could be existential. That issue is the battle against climate change.

Even in the election campaigns, signs of this began to emerge. The new taxes on sweetened beverages and disposable tableware became the ultra-Orthodox parties’ flagship issues. Their main campaign promise to their voters seemed to be plastic pollution and dental cavities. The fact that these taxes have already proven to reduce consumption, save families money and contribute to both human health and the environment didn’t change much.

But the bigger worry is that Israel will join those countries for which fighting climate change itself is a politically polarizing issue. A situation in which one side of the political map recognizes the dangers of the crisis, understands the scientific consensus and makes plans to prepare for the worst crisis in human history, while the other side of the political map denies the science and the knowledge, scoffs at the risk and threatens to sentence Israelis to loss of life and grave damage to the quality of life.

When you look at other countries with political polarization similar to Israel’s, this fear takes shape. During the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, the United States regressed not only in preparedness for the climate crisis, but also in global leadership in one of the fastest-growing fields of the global economy.

When America withdrew from the Paris Agreement on climate change, fired scientists and denied the climate crisis, it undermined the global race now underway to develop green technologies, as well as the dominance of green investments. It thereby cleared the stage for China, which during those years gained an important edge in the global competition between the two countries. One of President Joe Biden’s most dramatic moves was his ambitious climate plan, which is supposed to repair this damage.

Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro destroyed rain forests that are crucial to absorbing the entire world’s carbon emissions. Australia suffered from raging wildfires to such an extent that climate denial became a significant issue in the last election and led to the ouster of a climate-denying government. Even in some European countries, climate denial plays a dominant role in far-right parties’ platforms.

When the outgoing government was sworn in, the state comptroller termed government action until then “nonexistent to negative with regard to the climate crisis.”

But during our government’s tenure, the Environmental Protection Ministry spearheaded dramatic steps that boosted Israel several ranks in its handling of and preparations for the climate crisis and protecting the environment.

The cabinet approved a climate law, allocated billions of shekels in government funding to preparing for the climate crisis, blocked an oil transport agreement with the Europe Asia Pipeline Company, introduced a K-12 climate education program, doubled the size of Israel’s protected marine areas, rehabilitated natural systems and more.

We didn’t manage to do everything we planned, and of course not everything was working in the same direction. The economic reality, the global energy crisis and attendant high prices, and differing views within the cabinet weighed against some of the steps we wanted to take and ultimately narrowed or prevented some of them.

But my fear is that the next government won’t be one that tries but doesn’t completely succeed. Rather, it will be one that actively undermines the battle against climate change, denies it and deliberately seeks to ignore and minimize it.

Canceling the tax on disposable tableware, for instance, would be a disaster that would resound for generations. More than 90 percent of the litter in Israel’s open areas is disposable tableware. The cost of cleaning up these areas, which falls and will continue to fall on the public, is dozens of times higher than any tax.

Every other country in the developed world has stricter regulation than we do, including a complete ban on selling or using such tableware throughout the European Union. But instead of going forward, Israel’s new government wants to go backward.

The next government was handed on a silver platter all the programs, funding allocations and exceptional measures this government implemented over the last year and a half to push Israel’s handling of the climate crisis forward. During this short time, we did what hadn’t been done here for years, and in fact, ever.

Some things we finished, some we didn’t manage to finish. But we paved the way for a progressive Israel that stood shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the world.

Some issues that are politically polarizing abroad have been imported into Israel’s polarization in recent years. Abortions and gun ownership are two examples.

Yet other issues – first and foremost attitudes toward the coronavirus pandemic – remained above politics and within the Israeli consensus. In the United States, for instance, wearing a mask became a political statement. But in Israel, both right and left recognized the need to take the pandemic seriously.

For the sake of Israelis’ lives and the country’s need to survive and flourish over time in a warming world, it would be very much better for the battle against climate change to remain part of this consensus and not fall victim to denial.

Tamar Zandberg is the minister of environmental protection.