Overline: Interview
Headline: Climate Action Takes Shape in Israel

David Dunetz has worked for 20 years at the Heschel Center for Sustainability in Tel Aviv, which leads the Israel Climate Forum, a consortium of civil society organizations. He has a keen interest in multi-stakeholder participation methods, and has initiated partnerships to spearhead policy change in Israel on such diverse issues as urban revitalization, the SDGs, health and food systems, and climate action. Last year he organized the annual Israeli Climate Summit. As a Visiting Research Fellow at the IASS Potsdam on a joint program with the Israel Public Policy Institute, he is currently researching how civic engagement and participation processes can advance climate policy and democratic innovation.

Senior Fellow David Dunetz in the IASS roof garden.
Senior Fellow David Dunetz in the IASS roof garden. IASS

You have worked on efforts to promote sustainability in Israel for many years. Do you think that the message is finally getting through?

Climate politics hasn’t been at the forefront of politics or the public mind, but there is a growing and broadening climate movement. We have a very vibrant civil society movement with different groups stepping up to take on the challenge of climate change – from social rights activists to religious groups and young people who are striking on Fridays. There are also a significant number of environmental and sustainability civil society organizations. So I hope to see environmental issues playing a greater role in national politics in the coming years.

Is climate action a factor in the campaign for the general election on 17 September?

That’s the thing: climate action plays almost no role at all; the campaign in Israel is all about domestic issues centered around peace and conflicts between Arabs and Jews. Many social and economic issues get shunted to the periphery. This is different in municipal elections, where politicians often address very concrete environmental topics, such as the air pollution in Haifa. One positive aspect of all this is that there is no left-right divide in Israeli politics when it comes to sustainability: all of the parties agree that climate action will be an important topic in the future.

What is their political focus with regard to climate action?

The government promotes Israel as a “start-up nation” and unfortunately views climate in a narrow sense as an economic opportunity for the country to export technological innovations developed in Israel. There is some truth to this image: Israel is very agile when it comes to technological innovations in, for example, water conservation for agriculture, biotech and fintech. And we are a center for some key innovations in solar energy, which usually get exported. But compared to other nations, Israel lags far behind in the transition to renewable energy generation, which accounts for just 4% of our energy mix. There is hope that this will change, and many people are fighting hard for it. At the Heschel Center, we are working closely with a broad range of stakeholders in a participatory process to develop new climate protection legislation. I’m very happy about these developments, as democratic participation must go hand in hand with climate protection.

What is role of the Heschel Center in this process?

The Heschel Center is steering this process, which spans four working groups for each sector: energy, building and urban planning, transportation, business and industry. These groups are developing a road map for the decarbonization of Israel, which will be presented in mid-2020, in time for the update of the Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Climate Agreement.

At the IASS, you are studying participatory processes around sustainability issues. Which ones are you particularly interested in?

Germany’s Climate Action Plan 2050, which was created in a broad participatory process, was one of the inspirations for the development of Israel’s climate strategy. We invited representatives from the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy and the German government to the Heschel Center to share their experiences with the multi-stakeholder process that contributed to the development of this policy framework. I’m looking at what happened in the aftermath of that, and at other ways and means of heightening civic involvement for transformation. Things such as Citizen’s Assemblies intrigue me, and I am hoping to learn more about how they work in such places as Ireland and the UK. And also right here in Potsdam. I am fascinated by the municipal participatory budget process that has been established here and want to find out more on a visit to the Municipal Offices. I am looking at ways to integrate greater democratic participation beyond the ballot box, and think that many forms are emerging now in response to a real need for engagement outside the “usual” forms of public participation.

As an educator and facilitator, are you surprised at the success of the Fridays for Future movement?

I’m very inspired by Fridays for Future. Greta is amazing – I actually went to Berlin to hear her speak in July. Her approach is in many ways the opposite of what I had been preaching all these years as an environmental educator: that we should avoid alarmist and apocalyptic stories and instead try to inspire hope and take the optimistic view that we can do something. And then along comes Greta and explains that our house is on fire and we could very well face extinction. And it’s working! And she is right, of course: If we take the science literally that is a real possibility, and governments are not working fast enough.

So the naked truth, as frightening as it may be, triggers action?

It turns out that fear works as a message – at least to a degree – and the gradualist approach that we practiced on sustainability agendas has not delivered the transformation we need. So I am even reassessing my own pedagogics. Young people, it turns out, are ready to hear the truth and act upon it because they understand that this is their future. But as Greta says, this is not the task of young people alone. They need us adults to get into gear and move faster, even if it’s uncomfortable for us. It has been a vital wake-up call. Hope is essential, but we shouldn’t make it a prerequisite for action. Or, as Greta says, “When we start to act hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope – look for action. Then the hope will come.”