President Donald Trump has received well-deserved condemnation from, among others, leaders of many nations, many governors, mayors, environmentalists, corporate chief executive officers and 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, Canada and the United States. How should Jews respond to the U.S. withdrawal?
First, Jews should become very familiar with the issues involved. Ten important climate-related factors are:
- Science academies worldwide, 97% of climate scientists and 99.9% 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 been since 1998. The year 2016 was the warmest 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 of 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 climates experts believe that we are close to a tipping point due to feedback loops, when climate change will spiral out of control, with disastrous consequences, unless major positive 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 two to three parts per million 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 four to six 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 refugees fleeing from droughts, wildfire, floods, storms and other effects of climate change.
- The 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 threats by the vast majority of Republicans, but so far with very limited success.
Second, Jews should consider Judaism’s powerful teachings that can be applied to environmental sustainability. These include:
- “In the hour when the Holy One, Blessed be He, created the first man, 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.” (Midrash: Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28)
- 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.
- Judaism teaches: “Who is the wise person? The one who considers the future consequences of his or her actions.”
- The Jewish sages expand Deuteronomy 20:19-20, prohibiting the destruction of fruit trees in wartime to build battery rams to overcome an enemy fortification, to make a general prohibition against unnecessarily destroying anything of value.
Jews should be on the forefront of efforts to help avert a climate catastrophe. We should try to significantly reduce our individual carbon footprints by recycling, using efficient light bulbs and other items, eating less meat, reducing our use of automobiles by walking, biking, sharing rides and using mass transit, when appropriate, and in other ways. We should support efforts to increase efficiencies of automobiles and other items, shift to renewable sources of energy and make societal steps that reduce greenhouse emissions.
We should try to arrange programs on climate change at synagogues, Jewish centres and other Jewish venues, write letters to editors, speak to family members, friends, neighbours and co-workers, and take other steps to increase awareness of the seriousness of climate threats and how applying Jewish values can help reduce them. We should do everything possible to reduce climate change and to help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.
Richard H. Schwartz, PhD, is professor emeritus, College of Staten Island, president emeritus of Jewish Veg and president of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians. He is the author of several books, including Judaism and Vegetarianism and Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet, and more than 250 articles at jewishveg.org/schwartz. He was associate producer of the documentary A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.