In September, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed strict limits on carbon emissions from new power plants. These proposed standards reflect our nation’s commitment to combating climate change, which is not just an environmental challenge, but one of the great social justice challenges of our time.
In recent testimony supporting the proposal before the EPA, I spoke of the Reform movement’s interest in this issue, rooted in centuries-old Jewish teaching about our responsibility to the Earth, to humanity and all of creation. In biblical commentary on Ecclesiastes (Rabbah 7:13), God says to Adam, “See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world, for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.”
Today, our responsibility is no less than Adam’s. We take seriously the call for us to be stewards of the Earth, not just for our own benefit and the well-being of those with whom we share this planet, but because of a responsibility to the generations that will succeed us.
The September 2013 report from the U.N. International Panel on Climate Change found that climate scientists are 95 percent confident that climate change is due to human impact, 90 percent certain that the last 30-year period is the warmest in 800 years and 99 percent sure that the rise in sea levels has accelerated over the last two centuries. Climate change is happening and its impact on our air, land and water is increasingly apparent. As evidenced by the recent tragedy of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, droughts afflicting Africa and the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Sandy, climate change is contributing to more frequent extreme weather events.
As significant an issue as this is for the environment itself, climate change is also causing economic, social and a range of other challenges that impact the residents of the United States and every nation on earth. And as is often the case, those who were already the most vulnerable are feeling the impact of these negative events most.
About 1.4 billion people live in extreme poverty worldwide and will have particular difficulty adapting to our rapidly changing climate. Tens of millions of people living in low-lying areas will be forced to leave their homes and due to the increased flying ranges for mosquitoes, malaria and other infectious diseases are likely to spread to areas that have never experienced them before. One international report estimates that climate change causes an average of 400,000 deaths per year, the vast majority of which are in developing countries. Within the U.S., studies show a wide racial and economic gap when it comes to air pollution, with communities of color and those with less formal schooling and high poverty rates more at risk of asthma, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
The United States is home to just under 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we produce more than 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Like Adam caring for the earth on which he dwelled, we have a responsibility to ourselves and our descendants in this country and around the world to address this climate crisis. Implementing the proposed federal limitation on carbon emissions from new power plants targets a key source of carbon pollution, and demonstrates our country’s commitment to the health and well-being of our planet and its inhabitants.
Barbara Weinstein is associate director of the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement. She testified in front of the EPA this month about proposed limits on carbon emissions from new power plants.