Council Member James F. Gennaro held a powerful sit-down conversation with Idit Silman, Israel’s Minister of Environmental Protection. The dialogue marked Gennaro’s first environmental input on the world stage. Previously, he gained much accolade for advancements on the city and state levels. The duo was joined by Yuval Laster, Senior Deputy Director General and Policy Planning & Strategy for the State of Israel's Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Silman gained worldwide fame when she resigned from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government, mentioning religious-related concerns with the coalition’s operations. At the time, she became infuriated that then-Minister of Health Nitzan Horowitz, citing a supreme court decision, instructed hospitals to allow visitors to enter their facilities with chametz during Pesach. Such a decision has special meaning to Gennaro, a non-Jew, who annually participates in the local m’chiras chametz sale, whereby he takes ownership of much of the Queens Jewish community’s leavened product during Pesach. Silman, then the parliamentary whip of the coalition, shifted the balance of power between coalition and opposition, leading to the need for the election that brought Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back into power.

Gennaro, a geologist and environmental scientist by trade, is well recognized in the field of environmental protections. He currently chairs the city’s Committee on Environmental Protection, Resiliency and Waterfronts, where he develops environmental policies and preparedness in the face of potential flooding, sea-level rise, and extreme weather events. In March of last year, his historic bill led to the phasing out of fuel oil no. 4 in New York City. His actions have led to improvements for air quality and public health by reducing emissions of particulate matter, oxides of nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide. The legislation is set to help prevent premature deaths, respiratory and cardiac hospitalizations, and asthma emergency room visits while fast-tracking the 2030 deadline for reducing greenhouse gases by 30 percent from private and public buildings found mostly in communities facing environmental injustice. Gennaro, star of the 2008 biofuels documentary FUEL, received the 2013 Environmental Quality Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 2014, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo appointment Gennaro as Deputy Commissioner for New York City Sustainability and Resiliency at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, where he served as the department liaison to NYS RISE (Resiliency Institute for Storms & Emergencies).

With the blessing of the Queens Museum, Gennaro and Silman sat in the confines of the arts center for a riveting conversation on reducing water and air pollution, creating climate change adaptation strategies, and potential improvement for resiliency to major storms. The topics ranged from increasing clean and reliable energy and ventured into brownfield cleanup. Gennaro chose the Queens Museum in commemoration of Israel recent 75th anniversary. Five years ago, the site gained worldwide attention when this publication brought light to a cancelled - and later reinstated - event, organized by Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the 1947 U.N. vote to partition Palestine and establish the Jewish State of Israel. The General Assembly made that pronouncement in the building that now houses the art museum. The debacle, called out by Council Member Rory Lancman, Assembly Member Michael Simanowitz, and Comptroller Scott Stringer, raised concerns about how museums might do business considering recent anti-BDS legislation.

Gennaro explained to Silman that New York and Israel are similar in many respects, most paramount being size. He noted that while most fossil fuel use comes from transportation and power plants, there are strategies to decarbonize and transfer to renewal energy options. Due to the size limitations in Israel for solar panels, Gennaro suggested the option of using geothermal energy. “Everyone wants to be a good actor and do their part for the climate crisis,” expressed Gennaro. “Cities and nations often feel they can have a profound impact by establishing a grand environmental plan. Often these plans reflect management of solid waste.” Gennaro stated that while it is admirable to be a good citizen, it is more important to keep expectations measured and realize that regions like Israel and New York City can make a broader impact by thinking locally and changing coal use to cleaner fuel options rather than trying to make a mark on the world’s climate.

During the talks, it was mentioned that anything done to reduce the burning of municipal waste and solid waste fires dramatically leads to near-immediate health advantages, specifically in local air quality. While both Israel and New York City are small, climate initiatives and the creation of technologies that bring upon clean air benefits can be replicated worldwide. Israel is plagued with waste burning, especially in areas that have not been modernized. Gennaro stressed that by burning less fossil fuel, there is thereby less carbon omissions and greenhouse gases acting as pollutants ruining local air quality. In the United States, the Clean Air Act enacted in 1963 and amended many times since keeps the air in the country clean and stops people from going to emergency rooms with issues, primarily those related to asthma. By reducing carbon emissions, we retroactively reduce local pollutants that are irritant to our lungs, namely oxides of nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide. In technical terms, particle pollution from fine particulates (PM2.5) or those smaller are a concern when levels in air are unhealthy. Breathing in unhealthy levels of PM2.5 can increase the risk of health problems like heart disease, asthma, and low birth weight. Unhealthy levels can also reduce visibility and cause the air to appear hazy. Our bodies have no defense against such small matter.

On the world’s stage, anyone who speaks about fossil fuels is working to make a grandiose impact, but helping our local air is a measurable and quantifiable impact where everyday people will see results. Gennaro left the Minister with an important message: “It is great to fight the climate war and reduce CO2 levels, but understand that whatever we do to reduce greenhouse gases goes together with reducing oxides of sulfur, ground level ozone carbon monoxide, and heavy metals from burning fossil fuel that are proven shorten people’s lives. The selling point should always be local air benefits and living in an environment that has no thick smog.”

Dropping these levels brings in clean air for our kids to breathe. It is no secret that any environmental pollution reduction is costly, but if it helps us breathe easier, then the payoff is bountiful. For the State of Israel, any reduction locally can be diminished in a heartbeat when a new coal burning plant opens in a nearby developing country setting the world irrevocably backwards, but the local health benefits will keep Israelis living longer, healthier lives. 

 By Shabsie Saphirstein