Amid Political Turmoil, Israel’s Climate Leaders Give Cause for Hope

In a rapidly changing political atmosphere, climate change could actually help bridge the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

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Source: Yasir Gürbüz

“Is it safe to go outside?”

You’d forgive me for asking. The Monday I arrived in Israel for the Jerusalem Press Club’s Climate Innovation Press Tour, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators descended on the holy city to protest the government’s radical plan to weaken the country’s Supreme Court. The political turmoil came on the heels of escalating violence in the already conflict-ridden region, with Israeli Defense Forces killing nine Palestinians at the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank and a Palestinian terrorist shooting and killing seven Israelis near a synagogue in East Jerusalem just two weeks prior to my arrival. At 9:30pm, staring through the front entrance of Jerusalem’s Dan Panorama Hotel and seeing a pitch black city illuminated only by the occasional car or taxi, I had no idea if I could safely step out that door.

Ultimately, I didn’t have much choice. The airline had lost my luggage, and while Israel may have had better things to worry about, I was fixated on finding a belt, toothbrush, deodorant, and notebook in advance of our press tour. As a 23-year-old who got his start in climate journalism during the pandemic, this was not only my first business trip, but my first time doing any sort of in-person journalism, ever. I could not spend the week with sagging trousers and airplane Sun Chip breath.

So when my colleague reassured me that “of course I could go outside,” I was relieved. I let Google Maps guide me down a half mile of dark, empty alleys to the Mamilla Mall where, after a brief moment of panic when I forgot that the prices were in shekels, I successfully purchased my missing necessities.

For the past eight months, my primary journalistic focus has been on carbon bombs: fossil fuel projects with the potential to emit over one billion tons of carbon dioxide, or over 120,000 years of Taylor Swift’s private jet. I remember pacing around my apartment complex last May, head shaking, breath shortening, as I listened to The Guardian’s podcast explaining that the world’s major oil and gas companies have 195 carbon bomb projects in the works and that they, alone, would emit enough carbon dioxide to blow the world past our Paris Agreement goals.

After a week of deep breaths and fidgeting with paperclips at my desk, I decided to start covering these megaprojects one by one. Every region had its differences, but I could usually count on one similarity: where there are carbon bombs, there is conflict and injustice. Louisiana has fossil fuel infrastructure causing disproportionately high cancer rates for Black communities. British Columbia, Canada has pipelines illegally traversing Treaty 8 First Nations land. Cabo Delgado, Mozambique is in the throes of an armed insurgency where militants have, among other complaints, lamented their economic exclusion from the region’s natural gas discovery. Venezuela’s oil industry contributed to the country’s ongoing economic and humanitarian crisis, where Nicolás Maduro has undemocratically consolidated power, dissidents have been jailed, prosecuted, harassed, tortured, and even killed, and refugees have fallen victim to smugglers, traffickers, irregular warfare, and xenophobia.

Israel is home to a carbon bomb of its own. The Leviathan Gas Field — a recent offshore natural gas discovery in the Eastern Mediterranean — could create up to 1.06 billion tons of carbon emissions. Knowing Israel was in the midst of terrorist attacks and political turbulence, I traveled to the other side of the world with a central question in mind: are there links between the country’s fossil fuel reliance and its worsening conflict?

Unsurprisingly, there are. Despite the Israeli government’s hopes that domestic natural gas development would increase diplomatic relations with neighbors who could purchase the energy, international tensions heightened. Since 2010, Lebanon has insisted the Leviathan Gas Field extends into their waters and that Israel does not have a right to develop the field themselves. In January 2020, hundreds of Jordanians took to the streets chanting “No to enemy gas” as the country began receiving Leviathan imports. Two months after that, ISIS bombed a pipeline transporting Leviathan gas to Egypt. As countries developed a pipeline deal to transport Leviathan gas through the Mediterranean Sea to Cyprus and Greece, Turkey — one of the first majority Muslim countries to recognize Israel — has expressed immense anger around Cyprus’ involvement. Meanwhile, 87% of Palestinian electricity is imported from Israel, leaving Palestinians even more vulnerable when Israel turns to violence.

But when I weaved through the dark, cobblestone alleys of Jerusalem on that late Monday night, I felt none of that. I felt calm. Far calmer, actually, than I would feel if I had to take a nighttime stroll outside my apartment in central Los Angeles.

How could that be? Was it because I was entranced by the beauty of the ancient metropolis? Was it because as a Jew, I found myself as not a cultural and religious minority for the first time in my life? Was it because the Hebrew text on the walls and the casual utterances of todah rabah (thank you) and laila tov (goodnight) after each interaction reminded me of my childhood synagogue, making Jerusalem feel like a home away from home?

At that point in the trip, maybe it was just that.

But that calm, welcoming, uplifting feeling only grew throughout my week in Israel. It grew when our cohort attended the OurCrowd Global Investor Summit, where OurCrowd’s CEO Jonathan Medved proudly announced the attendance of contingents from Bahrain, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates, made possible by the 2020 Abraham Accords. The conference showcased the crème de la plant-based crème of climate solutions, featuring a presentation from Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, a Shark-Tank-esque “open mic” for clean tech startups to pitch venture capital firms, and booths for everything from revolutionary green hydrogen technology to lab-grown “kosher scallops.” Amidst all the glamor, the most memorable moment for me was when Medved rushed out of the press room, saying, “I have a meeting with our friends from UAE and I really don’t want to be late.”

The feeling grew further when, on our final night, our cohort was graciously welcomed by Yosef Abramowitz and his family for Shabbat dinner. A co-founder of Israel’s solar industry, Abramowitz shared with the long table of out-of-town guests that he had recently returned home from a trip to Comoros. A majority Muslim island nation in Africa, Comoros has historically had an erratic relationship with Israel. Abramowitz discussed his recent work in the country helping them improve on energy availability and security.

When it clicked, though, was five days after I got back to Los Angeles. Due to the time difference, I logged onto the computer at 3am for a Zoom interview with Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed, the Executive Director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and formerly the Acting Chief Scientist of Israel’s Ministry of Science and Technology, making him the highest ranking Palestinian in the Israeli government at the time. Despite our conversation spanning difficult topics of energy poverty and security for Palestinians, worsening droughts and heatwaves in the Middle East, and the rise of conflict in the region, Dr. Abu Hamed’s answers kept leaving me with hope.

In three years of climate reporting, I’ve asked dozens of experts how fossil fuels or environmental changes drive conflict in a region. In that interview with Dr. Abu Hamed, I asked for the first time in my life: “We know energy and climate can cause conflict and pull people apart. But in what ways can climate change bring people together?”

“Countries in this region face very similar challenges. They have a similar climate, they have similar challenges on water scarcity and desertification, all of them have high solar radiation, and cooperation is the only way to work as one region to cope with the impact of climate change,” Dr. Abu Hamed responded. “We have to use the environment as a diplomacy tool to help people, first of all, see the humanity in each other, and once they do that, everything becomes just a technicality and cooperation becomes just a normal thing.”

When our plane touched down in Israel on that first day, I expected to find a sad story of fossil fuels escalating violence in an already conflict-ridden region. And of course, that story was there. What I did not expect was to encounter CEOs gleefully collaborating with Muslim nations on climate solutions and an accomplished scientist sharing how climate change can actually help bridge the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Those anecdotes don’t erase Palestinian energy vulnerability or ISIS’s pipeline bombing, but they do provide me immense hope for the future of the region. 

Even if I should have been nervous and scared, I found myself surrounded the entire week by people with remarkably open minds, big hearts, and visionary ideas. And in that environment, I felt safe.

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Ethan Brown

Ethan is a recent graduate of Boston University from Bethel, Connecticut with a dual degree in Environmental Analysis & Policy and Film & Television.


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