In three presidential debates, there was not a single question about climate change. Nigel Savage, president and CEO of the New York-based Jewish environmental organization Hazon, said the slow warming of the planet “looks like it’s important, but not so urgent. But, of course, it’s important and urgent.”
Although the environment came up only in passing on the debate stage, Savage said that President Barack Obama has made “real progress on a raft of issues.”
Among them is the Paris Agreement, in which nearly every country pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Adopted last December, it goes into effect Nov. 4.
The United States has also cut coal consumption, improved automobile fuel efficiency and increased the use of clean energy, Savage said.
Liya Rechtman, former manager of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, called a landmark environmental agreement signed by almost 200 nations in Rwanda this month a “huge victory.” It reduces the use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, used in air conditioners and refrigerators that contribute to the greenhouse effect. The agreement could prevent a 0.9 degree rise in temperature by the end of the century, according to the U.N. Environment Program.
“It was great to see this agreement because it was industry led,” said Rechtman. “This made sense for the industry both ethically and economically. This is a really exciting model.”
Rechtman called climate change a potential “bipartisan nexus point” in domestic politics and added that there has been progress in Congress around forming a bipartisan coalition to address climate change.
She said that two of the next big battles for environmentalists in the United States are over clean power plants and assuring that financing goes through for a green climate fund for countries vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
Rechtman added that communities have also made progress fighting climate change on a local level.
“The more local you get, the more change can be made by one rabbi here or a synagogue green team there,” she said. “It’s absolutely important to remember how important cities and localities can be in this fight.”
Rechtman also said that extreme weather events such as hurricanes make action around climate change more likely.
“Unfortunately, as we see the growing impact of climate change on our communities, the more we see the impetus for climate change and comprehensive energy reforms in our country,” she said.
Still, Savage pointed to the importance of next month’s presidential election for the environmental movement.
“I think it’s pretty clear that the next president will have a hugely consequential impact on all of this,” he said. “Will the Environmental Protection Agency be strengthened or weakened? Will the U.S. move forward or backward? This is what’s at stake in the election.”