To be perfectly honest, I received the news about Al Gore coming to Israel to collect a $1 million prize for his achievements in raising environmental awareness with a dose of skepticism. Does Al Gore really need more money or recognition, especially when there are so many committed, homegrown environmentalists in Israel, many of whom are so under-appreciated? Wasn’t his movie just a glorified Power Point, containing no significant new insights? And even if Gore is a relentless activist today, where was his sense of commitment when he was working from the White House?
However, after pondering it over a little, it became clear to me just what an enormous impact Al Gore has had on environmental awareness in Israel.
Although it is difficult to image today, with discussion of environmental issues so mainstream and widespread, it was only a couple of years ago when environmentalists were considered an obscure special interest group in this country. I remember being told by a distinguished professor in Tel Aviv University a couple of years ago that the environment was a “luxury” issue, which only the well-off could be expected to care about.
All of that has changed during the past year or so.
Sometime in mid to late 2007, the environmental went from the bottom of the list of pressing issues to somewhere near the top, almost overnight. Suddenly everyone cared about the environment – students, professors, architects, even politicians. Perhaps most significantly, people who do not deal with green issues in their work or daily life suddenly began to feel concerned about the environment.
What brought about this radical change in perception? Was it the dedicated work of the green movement in Israel, which (though often underfunded and overstressed) has invested so much in raising awareness over the past decade? Was it the familiar effect of American cultural trends seeping into Israeli culture, with the usual delayed timing? Or perhaps Israelis had noticed the strange weather patterns over the past few years, with the winter cold setting in well after Hanukkah and the rains seeming to fall less than they used to?
The answer is probably all of the above. However, for many people, the tipping point apparently came after watching “An Inconvenient Truth.” The film was screened extensively in Israel, exposing audiences in various sectors of the population to the message that climate change is real and happening now. For this alone, Al Gore deserves the award.
Gore’s influence extends to decision-makers as well. Witness National Infrastructures Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer’s announcement yesterday at Tel Aviv University’s “Renewable Energy and Beyond” conference that he plans to publish tenders for ten new solar power plants in the Negev, while aiming for 20% of Israel’s electricity to be produced from renewable sources by 2020. Today, only 2% of Israel’s energy comes from renewable sources.
Ben-Eliezer is not known as one of Israel’s greener politicians, in fact he is promoting the construction of a new coal-fired power plant in Ashkelon. However, sharing a stage with Al Gore apparently has a profound effect on Israeli politicians.
Gore’s current visit is also making waves in the media. The Israeli press loves foreign celebrities and tends to take their messages with the utmost seriousness. Ynet, for example, subtitled an article on Al Gore’s speech yesterday with the heading “The Prophet Gore” (Hebrew link).
The lesson for the Israeli green movement is clear – inviting big-name celebrities like Al Gore to Israel to speak about the environment is an incredibly effective strategy for raising environmental awareness in Israel.