President Donald J. Trump has received well-deserved condemnation from leaders of many nations, governors and mayors, environmentalists, corporate CEOs, Jewish and other religious organizations for withdrawing the United States from the 2015 Paris climate change pact that was agreed to by all the 195 nations that attended, including Israel and the United States. How should Jews respond to the U.S. withdrawal?
First, Jews should become very familiar with the issues involved, including 10 important climate-related factors.
Science academies worldwide, 97 percent of climate scientists, and 99.9 percent of peer-reviewed papers on the issue in respected scientific journals argue that climate change is real, is largely caused by human activities, and poses great threats to humanity. All 195 nations at the December 2015 Paris climate change conference agreed that immediate steps must be taken to combat climate change.
Every decade since the 1970s has been warmer than the previous decade, and all of the 17 warmest years since temperature records were first kept in 1880 have occurred in the years since 1998. Last year was the warmest year globally since 1880, breaking the record held before by 2015 and previously by 2014, meaning we now have had three consecutive years of record temperatures.
Polar icecaps and glaciers worldwide have been melting rapidly, faster than scientific projections. This has caused an increase elevation in oceans worldwide with the potential for major flooding.
There has been an increase in the number and severity of droughts, wildfires, storms and floods.
California has been subjected to so many severe climate events (heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and mudslides when heavy rains occur) recently that its governor, Jerry Brown, stated, “Humanity is on a collision course with nature.” California serves as an example of how climate change can wreak havoc.
Many climate experts believe that we are close to a tipping point due to positive feedback loops in which climate change will spiral out of control, with disastrous consequences, unless major changes soon occur.
While many climate scientists think that 350 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric CO2 is a threshold value for climate stability, the world reached 400 ppm in 2014, and the amount is increasing by 2-3 ppm per year.
While climate scientists hope that temperature increases can be limited to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), largely because that is the best that can be hoped for with current trends and momentum, the world is now on track for an average increase of 4-6 degrees Celsius, which would result in great human suffering and significant threats to human civilization.
The Pentagon and other military groups think that climate change will increase the potential for instability, terrorism and war by reducing access to food and clean water, and by causing tens of millions of desperate refugees fleeing from droughts, wildfire, floods, storms and other effects of climate change.
The conservative group ConservAmerica, formerly known as “Republicans for Environmental Protection,” is very concerned about climate change threats. They are working to end the denial about climate change and the urgency of working to avert solutions, but so far with very limited success.
In mounting this fight, Jews should consider Judaism’s powerful teachings that can be applied to environmental sustainability. “In the hour when the Holy One, Blessed be He, created the first man,” teaches the Midrash on Ecclesiastes, “He took him and let him pass before all the trees in the Garden of Eden and said to him, ‘See my works, how fine and excellent they are. Now all that I created I created for your benefit. Think upon this and do not corrupt or destroy my world. For if you destroy it, there is no one to restore it after you.’”
Genesis 2:15 indicates that the human role is to work the land, but also to guard and preserve it. Jews are mandated to be shomrei ha’adama, guardians of the earth, co-workers with God in working for tikkun olam, healing and repairing the world.
The Talmud declares, “Who is the wise person? The one who considers the future consequences of his or her actions.” And the sages extended Deuteronomy 20:19-20, prohibiting the destruction of fruit trees in wartime to build battering rams to overcome an enemy fortification, to make a general prohibition against unnecessarily destroying anything of value.
Given the above, Jews should be in the forefront of efforts to help avert a climate catastrophe. We should strive to make tikkun olam a central focus of all aspects of Jewish life today. We should try to significantly reduce our individual carbon footprints by recycling, using efficient lightbulbs and other items, eating less meat, reducing our use of automobiles by walking, biking, sharing rides, and using mass transit, and in other ways.
We should actively support efforts to increase efficiencies of automobiles and other items, shift to renewable sources of energy and promote other societal steps that reduce greenhouse emissions. We should try to arrange programs on climate change at synagogues, Jewish centers and other venues, write letters to editors, speak to family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers, and take other steps to increase awareness of the seriousness of climate threats.
In short, we should do everything possible to reduce climate change and to help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus at the College of Staten Island and president emeritus of Jewish Veg, formerly the Jewish Vegetarians of North America.