Over the past two decades, the American Jewish establishment has devoted substantial resources to try to address the challenges facing the future of the Jewish community. Aside from the threat of rising antisemitism, these challenges are exclusively internal: assimilation, soaring intermarriage rates among the non-Orthodox, disaffiliation (over two-thirds of American Jews don’t belong to a synagogue), and widespread Jewish illiteracy.
To be sure, all of these are serious problems. Yet there’s a much more immediate and dire threat to our future against which Jewish federations and advocacy organizations have not devoted nearly enough resources. By “our” future I mean not only Jews, but every human being on the planet. And if we don’t heed the warning signs soon, the consequences will be catastrophic.
I’m talking about climate change caused by human-produced, heat-trapping carbon emissions. Despite the Earth’s temperature becoming hotter – and getting hotter faster than at any time since records have been kept (the five warmest years on record globally occurred during the past five years) – too many of us do not understand the urgency of the threat. Tragically, we are eroding the conditions of our planet that have nurtured the miracle of life, seemingly oblivious to how fragile they are.
The reality is no longer in dispute among the overwhelming majority of climate scientists. A troubling UN report issued in October by a coalition of the world’s leading scientists stated unequivocally that if we don’t move rapidly away from fossil fuels, we will experience more deadly heat waves, more destructive storms, and more intense and frequent droughts worldwide. A subsequent UN report released in May warns of a looming ecological disaster that will endanger not only countless species but ultimately humanity itself.
Here in the US, we’ve already witnessed several clear manifestations of climate change during just the last two years: devastating hurricanes wreaking havoc on Houston and Puerto Rico, California wildfires erasing entire communities, and flash floods ravaging the Midwest.
What is US President Donald Trump’s response to these warning signs? His administration withdrew from the Paris climate accord in June 2017, and now it is close to completing a rollback of the most extensive federal effort to curb carbon emissions, launched during Barack Obama’s presidency. Then again, what else should we have expected from a president who reacted to a severe East Coast cold spell two winters ago by tweeting, “Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old global warming that our country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against.”
Climate deniers like Trump often conflate weather with climate change. But as much as the deniers are a problem, the real obstacle to progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions is complacency. The worst effects of global warming, we tell ourselves, are far into the future, so there’s plenty of time to act.
This is a dangerous fallacy, however. Once greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere they remain there for centuries. Thus, a delay of even a few years in reducing those emissions makes it exceedingly more difficult and expensive to avert irreparable harm to our planet. As Bill McKibben, the climatologist who first warned of the global warming threat three decades ago, noted, “If you don’t solve it fast, then you don’t solve it. No one’s got a plan for refreezing the Arctic once it’s melted.”
It baffles me that many Jews – and Jewish organizations – still don’t consider climate change to be a “Jewish issue.” Doesn’t our community have other fish to fry, they ask? Let me repeat: It’s the Earth that’s frying. Whether viewed in the context of pursuing justice or acting as stewards of God’s creation, the decimation of life, impoverishment, famine and disease that will be brought on by climate change are as critical as any explicitly Jewish issue.
But if this argument isn’t compelling enough, there’s also the specific Jewish implications. Rising sea levels resulting from melting polar ice shelves and glaciers could literally drown Tel Aviv, New York, Miami and other cities where there are large Jewish populations. To put it more bluntly, as long as Jews live on this planet, combating global warming will be a Jewish responsibility.
Jewish federations are quite adept at responding to emergencies – when southern Israel is under rocket attack from Gaza, when an earthquake strikes Haiti, or when hurricanes devastate US coastal cities. It’s time we start treating climate change as a Jewish emergency, one that requires us to take decisive action such as mobilizing our community (in partnership with other faith groups) to actively advocate in support of an accelerated transition to renewable energy.
To quote Hillel in Ethics of the Fathers: “If not now, when?” ■
Robert Horenstein is director of community relations and public affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland
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