Alon Tal Joins the Visiting Fellows in Israel Studies Program at FSI

Professor Tal’s expertise in sustainability and public policy will offer students valuable insight into the intersection of climate change issues and politics in the Middle East.
Alon Tal joins the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studeis as a Visiting Fellow in Israel Studies Dr. Alon Tal researches public policy and sustainability, primarily considering the effect of rapidly growing populations on natural resources and the environment.

The Visiting Fellows in Israel Studies program at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) is pleased to welcome Professor Alon Tal as a visiting fellow. He will be based at FSI’s Center on Food Security and the Environment (FSE)

Professor Tal’s research looks at a broad range of issues involving public policy and sustainability, primarily considering the effect of rapidly growing populations on natural resources and the environment. Over the course of his career, Tal has balanced the demands of both academia and public interest advocacy. He has worked in government as a member of Israel’s parliament and as a professor with appointments at Tel Aviv University, Stanford, Ben Gurion, Hebrew, Michigan State, Otago, and Harvard Universities.

Prior to joining FSI, Tal was a visiting professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He is also the founder of several environmental organizations in Israel, including Adam Teva V’Din, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, and the Arava Institute.

To get a better understanding of how environmental issues are intersecting with other challenges unfolding in Israel and the region, we spoke to Dr. Tal about his research, his time in government, and his recommendations for what can be done to affect more action to address climate change.

Can you give us a general overview of how the Middle East as a region currently approaches climate-related and environmental policies?

Given the availability of inexpensive oil, it is not the surprising that many countries in the Middle East have a significant “carbon footprint.” Historically, there has been resistance to modify that energy profile. This is now starting to change. Just in December 2023, at the UN climate conference in Dubai, for the first time all Middle Eastern countries signed a pledge which ostensibly should lead to a decarbonized region. It’s fairly clear what needs to be done to achieve this, but there are enormous institutional and political obstacles to actually doing it. Each country in the Middle East functions as an “energy island” making renewable deployment much more difficult. Creating a regional electricity grid is a good place to start.

Israel has an extremely creative climate tech ecosystem that’s producing everything from green hydrogen and fuel cells to cultured meat and milk. I am encouraged that countries like the United Arab Emirates have already begun to invest in Israeli start-ups and more established companies to provide the muscle they need to become transformative. A year ago, Israel, Jordan, and the UAE signed an agreement which, for the first time, will provide clean solar energy from Jordan (which has ample open space in its deserts) to Israel. In exchange, Israel will deliver inexpensive desalinized water to Jordan, which is perhaps the world’s most water scarce country.

Beyond the sustainability dividends, given the prevailing tensions, I believe that such cooperative efforts in the environment will not only make the region healthier, but will serve as a basis to reduce the historic enmity. Indeed, I have been involved in a range of cooperative projects with Palestinian and Jordanian partners for almost thirty years.

Ready or not, the climate crisis is here, and making these issues part of the country’s political agenda and keeping them in the spotlight is important. The younger generations know this and are speaking out, and we have a responsibility to make sure they are heard.
Alon Tal
Visiting Fellow in Israel Studies

You have firsthand experience working on policy as a member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. What success did you see there, and what challenges remain in addressing environmental issues? 

Israeli politics is quite polarized, not unlike the U.S., but issues relating to the environment generally enjoy support from all political parties. I did a lot of work with partners on the Israeli right and amongst religious politicians to engage them and receive support for a green agenda. The press made a big deal about this “bi-partisan” orientation, but it feels very natural to me. Regardless of people’s political orientation, everyone wants their children to breath clean air, drink potable war, and live in a planet with a stable climate.

That being said, I worry that public awareness of these issues remains deficient in Israel even though we are considered a “climate hotspot.” Other issues, particularly those involving security, don’t leave our citizens very much bandwidth to think about other matters, even urgent ones like climate change.

That’s why having a committee that convenes regular meetings and pushes the executive branch to be more conscientious in its mitigation and adaptation efforts from inside government is so critical. While I was serving, we held hearings on increasing shading in urban areas, removing bureaucratic obstacles to installation of “agrovoltaic” systems (solar panels on farmlands), expediting sales of electric vehicles through tax incentives, and many other topics. 

Our paramount objective was to pass a “climate law,” which would provide a statutory basis for the energy transition that needs to be accelerated. This is a step many state and national governments have taken in recent years. Unfortunately, the “Government of Change” that my party was part of in Israel fell apart before this critical legislation could be passed. That’s truly unfortunate. But the cabinet did make a commitment to reach net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050.  

Ready or not, the climate crisis is here, and making these issues part of the country’s political agenda and keeping them in the spotlight is important. The younger generations know this and are speaking out, and we have a responsibility to make sure they are heard.

What environmental implications does the ongoing war between Hamas and Israel have for the region?

For me, the war is not just about personal security, but also environmental security. Extremist, Islamist forces, and proxies for the Iranian government all threaten the kind of cooperation which is critical for the region.

I am encouraged that not one of my environmental colleagues from Arab countries — including many Palestinian colleagues — has broken off interactions with me since the war began. We continue to do research with a West Bank Palestinian group from Al Quds University about exposures to pharmaceutical products from wastewater reuse. We urgently need more of this kind of cooperation if we are going to address the pressing needs being created by this crisis.

Consider, for example, the groundwater situation in Gaza. When Egypt held the Gaza Strip in the 1960s, the aquifers were contaminated by salt water intrusion from the Mediterranean Sea caused by over pumping. It is absolutely critical that the people of Gaza have desalinated water (like Israel does) both to meet their immediate needs now and as climate-driven droughts continue to change local hydrological conditions in the future. For this to happen, whoever rules Gaza will have to stop investing limited local resources in military weaponry and focus on environmental infrastructure.

The human toll of this war is heartbreaking on all sides. But I believe that when the dust settles, there will be a victory for those who want to work together on critical environmental issues.

If we are going to meet the unprecedented challenges posed by the climate crisis, the world as we know it will have to change. And that won’t happen without effective public policies.
Alon Tal
Visiting Fellow in Israel Studies

How can institutions like Stanford help in addressing these issues?

There’s no question that higher education is evolving. Universities generally divide up their departments according to disciplinary distinctions that were germane at the advent of the twentieth century but often make less sense today. In the fields I work in, it’s common lip service to talk about “interdisciplinary solutions.” But what that actually means in practice is that students need to be given literacy in topics ranging from chemistry and biology to economics, social science, and even aesthetics. I am very impressed with Stanford’s new Doerr School of Sustainability, which is aspiring to serve as an example of how this can be done. 

The course I am currently teaching, “Public Policy and Sustainability Challenges: Israel and the Middle East,” is designed to give the students a sense of what policies appear to work and which ones do not.  For instance, carbon taxes used to be a theoretical idea. But with 61 countries having introduced policies that monetize carbon, we can now dispassionately evaluate these interventions.

The students I see in my class are a healthy mix of MBA and sustainability scholars. They break up into groups of four and serve as consultants for a variety of climate tech companies, applying what they have learned to the real-life regulatory challenges which these promising ventures face. Stanford is preparing leaders, many of whom are committed to working in the climate space. I hope that the class provides them with valuable insights and tools to do this.

Looking to the future, what policies would you like to see put in place to precipitate meaningful action on climate-related issues in both the short and long term?

It is increasingly clear that despite increased global awareness, humanity is not meeting its goals for reducing greenhouse emissions. The population is growing, and billions of people are justifiably seeking a higher standard of living. If we are going to meet the unprecedented challenges posed by the climate crisis, the world as we know it will have to change; we are going to have undergo a complete technological makeover. This means an end to the fossil fuel era, beef as it is raised today, steel, cement, plastics – you name it. And this won’t happen without effective public policies.

One of the things that we started doing in Israel is requiring every school child from kindergarten to grade 12 to take 40 hours of classes about climate related topics during the course of the school year. That’s only a start, but it’s an important one. At Tel Aviv University, ten different departments have collaborated to produce a massive online open class, or “MOOC,” to get that expertise out of the university and into the hands of people. Education, coupled with urgency and action, is crucial. These are the kinds of initiatives that I believe are needed if we are going to see any real progress. 

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