The World Health Organization has labeled climate change “the greatest threat to global health of the 21st century.” As a physician, it is difficult to ignore such a dramatic statement.
Climate change is real. The sea levels are rising, temperatures are increasing, more violent storms are becoming the norm. As Canadians, we are seeing consequences of climate change even more than other countries. Last year, Fort McMurray in Alberta was almost destroyed by a massive forest fire. This year was the worst year in British Columbia’s history for forest fire damage. (While climate change is not the sole cause of these events, it is known to be a contributing factor.)
Our glaciers are shrinking, as anybody who has visited the Athabasca Glacier in the Rockies can confirm. Temperatures in the Yukon and Northwest Territories are rising faster than in most other parts of the world. Traditional indigenous life in the north is being made much more difficult by the shortening of winter and the melting of the permafrost.
Climate change is also a Jewish issue. When the environment is changing so dramatically that human lives and well-being are at stake, Jewish values tell us that we must take action.
Pikuach nefesh (the saving of a life) is a fundamental Jewish principle. Climate change is believed to share some responsibility for present-day wars and loss of life, including the conflict in Syria. The World Health Organization predicts that 250,000 people will die each year between 2030 and 2050 due to the effects of climate change. Is it not incumbent upon us as Jews to try to mitigate these effects in line with the pikuach nefesh principle?
Climate change is a complex issue. Many people find it too complicated and too overwhelming, such that they are paralyzed into inaction. So what we can do about it?
In line with Jewish practice, the first response should be educating ourselves about the issues. There are many articles and books about the subject. One of the most compelling authors for me is Bill McKibben. He has written a book called Eaarth (Henry Holt and Company, 2010) in which he describes how the earth is changing, such that it is becoming a new and unfamiliar place.
Fossil fuels are the main culprits. Weaning ourselves off coal, oil and natural gas is paramount. Substituting sources of renewable energy such as solar, wind, tidal and geothermal is crucial.
On a society level, we can try to prevent further construction of oil and gas pipelines, and further development of the LNG (liquified natural gas) industry in northeast British Columbia. We can elect members of the Legislative Assembly and of Parliament who share our concerns.
On a personal level, we can drive less, fly less, use hybrid or electric vehicles, and support public transportation. We can eat less meat, as the cattle industry is a major contributor to increased greenhouse gases. We can consume less, recycle more and compost more.
Everybody can do something to help mitigate the effects of climate change. Doing nothing is no longer an option.
I take inspiration from the talmudic Choni, otherwise known as the Circle-maker.
One day, Choni was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Choni asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”
The man replied, “Seventy years.”
Choni then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another 70 years and eat the fruit of this tree?”
The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”
This week, as we are sitting in the sukkah, let us contemplate the fragility of our planet, and strive to make the earth a more secure place for our children and grandchildren.
Larry Barzelai is a Vancouver-based family physician, who has a special interest in geriatrics. He administers the annual Public Speaking Contest organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. He is a member of the board of CAPE (Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment).