Judaism and Climate Change
This posting is from chapter 10 of the 2nd edition of my book, “Judaism and Global Survival.” While it was initially written about 16 years ago, I am posting it for its historical value, the concepts and ideas are still valid, and it has some insights that are relevant and seldom considered today.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Proverbs 29: 18
Global climate change may be the most critical problem the world will face in the next few decades.There is a growing scientific consensus that we are already experiencing the effects of global warming, and that human actions are playing a significant role.[i]
Global average temperatures have increased about one degree Fahrenheit since 1900. This doesn’t sound like much, but it is causing major changes in our weather patterns. The warmest decade in recorded history was the 1990s. The ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 1983, with seven of them since 1990. The global temperature In 1998 was the warmest in recorded history.
Until recently, researchers were not fully whether human activities significantly contributed to this warming, or whether it simply reflected natural variations in the earth’s climate. However, in the fall of 1995, scientists affiliated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a U.N.-sponsored group of leading climate scientists from over 100 nations, concluded that the observed global temperature increase during the last century “is unlikely to be entirely natural in origin” and that “the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.”[ii] These conclusions are in their Second Assessment Report, a document that received contributions and peer review from over 2,500 of the world’s leading climate scientists, economists, and risk analysis experts.
In the year 2000, in its Third Assessment Report, the IPCC made two momentous revisions in its forecasts of global warming. It estimated that by 2100, the average world temperature could rise between 2.5 and 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit, a range significantly higher than the 1.8 to 6.3 degree rise predicted by the IPCC in 1995.[iii] Also, the group became far more emphatic that it is human activities, rather than natural planetary cycles, that are “contributing substantially” to the increase, and they indicated that they expect these human contributions to continue to grow.[iv] The IPCC report, which is over 1,000 pages long, was written by 123 lead authors from many countries who drew on 516 contributing experts and is one of the most comprehensive ever produced on global warming.[v] Hence, the conclusions of the report represent an unprecedented consensus among hundreds of climate scientists from all over the world. This makes their summary statement that “Projected climate changes during the 21st century have the potential to lead to future large-scale and possible irreversible changes in Earth systems,” with “continental and global consequences” especially ominous.[vi]
The main cause of global warming is the increase in atmospheric concentrations of heat-trapping gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides, and chlorofluorocarbons. These gases act as a “greenhouse,” trapping heat radiated out from the earth. While a certain amount of these gases is natural and necessary to retain enough of the sun’s energy to support life on earth, current excessive amounts will cause the earth’s temperature to rise abnormally.
The human activities that climate scientists have linked to the increases of these heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere include the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas), cattle ranching, deforestation, and rice farming.
In 1999, seven environmental groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists produced a world map showing 89 “Global Warming Early Warning Signs.”[vii] The groups conclude that “the earth is heating up.” Their ten categories of “early warning signs” (along with a sampling of examples of each) are presented below to help illustrate the damage that global climate change has already done, and its potential for major future damage:[viii]
1. Heat waves and periods of unusually warm weather (frequent and severe heat waves lead to increases in heat-related illness and death, especially among the ill, the poor, the elderly, and the young).
* A deadly heat wave in the summer of 1998 claimed over 100 lives in Texas. Temperatures in Dallas were over 100 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 consecutive days.
* In 1999, New York City had its driest and warmest July in recorded history. Temperatures were above 95 degrees Fahrenheit on 11 days -the most ever in the city in any single month.
* In 1998, Cairo, Egypt had its warmest August on record, with a temperature of 105.8 degrees Fahrenheit on August 6, 1998.
2. Spreading disease (warmer temperatures allow disease-transmitting mosquitoes to extend their ranges).
* There was a deadly malaria outbreak in the summer of 1997 in the Kenyan highlands, although the area had never previously been exposed to the disease.
* In the Andes mountains of Colombia, disease-carrying mosquitoes appeared at 7,200 feet, although they previously never appeared above 3,300 feet.
* In Mexico, dengue fever has been found at 5,600 feet, far above its previous limit of 3,300 feet.
3. The earlier arrival of spring (this may disrupt animal migrations, alter competitive balances among species, and cause additional unforeseen problems).
* Mirror Lake, New Hampshire has thawed about half a day earlier each year for the past 30 years.
* In the United Kingdom, toads, frogs, and newts are spawning about ten days earlier than they were 17 years ago, and in 1995 about one- third of 65 bird species studied had moved up the date of egg-laying by an average of 8.8 days compared to 1971.
* In southern England, the four earliest leafing days ever for oak trees occurred in the 1990s, in response to increasing temperatures from January to March over the past 41 years.
4. Plant and animal range shifts and population declines (such shifts, caused by warmer temperatures might hasten extinctions).
* In Europe, 22 of 35 butterfly species studied have shifted their range northwards by 22 to 150 miles, probably due to a 1.4 degree Fahrenheit warming in the past century.
* Adelie penguin populations have declined by 33 percent in Antarctica in the past 25 years due to declines in their winter ice habitat caused by ice pack melting.
* In Monterey Bay, California, invertebrate species such as limpets, snails, and sea stars have been shifting northward, probably due to warmer air and ocean temperatures.
5. Sea level rise and coastal flooding (global sea level has risen 4 to 10 inches in the past 100 years and may rise an additional half a foot to three feet during the next 100 years, causing major losses of coastal areas).
* In the Chesapeake Bay, the current level of sea level rise is triple the historical rate and appears to be accelerating. About a third of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge marsh has been gradually submerged since 1938.
* Rising sea levels are having negative effects in many areas of the world, including: saltwater inundation of coastal mangrove forests in Bermuda; loss of coastal land at Rufisque on the south coast of Senegal; considerable beach loss in Hawaii; the receding of shoreline by an average of half a foot per year in Fiji and over a foot and a half per year for Western Samoa for at least ninety years.
6. Coral reef bleaching (reefs in or near 32 countries experienced major bleaching in 1997-98, and continued bleaching due to warmer sea temperatures and other factors can have a major negative impact on aquatic life).
Global warming is the most serious of the threats facing reefs, since rising water temperatures cause the coral to expel microscopic organisms that are crucial to their health, a phenomenon known as coral bleaching.
* Among the many areas where significant bleaching of coral reefs has occurred are: American Samoa; Papua, New Guinea; the Persian Gulf; the Florida Keys and Bahamas; Australia’s Great Barrier Reef; and the Philippines.
7. Melting of glaciers (over the past 150 years, the majority of monitored mountain glaciers have been shrinking, with many at low altitudes disappearing; continued shrinkage could disrupt an important source of water).
* At current rates of glacial retreat, all the glaciers in Glacier National Park, Montana will be gone by 2070.
* Other examples of glacial retreat include: a fifty percent reduction in Spain since 1980; a 25 percent reduction on China’s Tien Shen Mountains over the past 40 years; and, in the past century a 50 percent reduction in the glaciers of the Caucasus Mountains of Russia and a 92 percent melting of Kenya’s Lewis Glacier.
8. Arctic and Antarctic warming (as parts of Canada, Alaska, Siberia, and Antarctica have been experiencing warming well above the global average for the past few decades, melting permafrost requires the reconstruction of buildings, roads, and airports, and is increasing soil erosion and the frequency of landslides).
* The ground has subsided from 16 to 33 feet in parts of interior Alaska due to permafrost thawing.
* Nearly 1,150 square miles of the Larson B and Wilkins ice shelves in Antarctica collapsed between March 1998 and March 1999, after 400 years of relative stability.
* The area covered by sea ice has shrunk by about 5 percent in the Bering Sea over the past 40 years and by 6 percent in the Arctic Ocean from 1978 to 1995.
9. Downpours, heavy snowfalls, and flooding (heavy rainfall and other types of storms have been occurring more frequently recently substantially increasing damage from storms. U.S. insurance companies have become strong advocates of efforts to reduce global warming because of major insurance claims resulting from recent severe storms and flooding. At the international climate change summit in The Hague in 2000, Dr. Andrew Dlugolecki, director of general insurance development of CGNU, the world’s sixth largest insurance company, told delegates that the rate of damage caused by changing weather is increasing at about ten percent per year, and losses related to global climate change could exceed the world’s wealth and bankrupt the global economy by 2065.[ix]
* Korea experienced severe flooding during July and August 1998, with rainfall on some days exceeding 10 inches.
* New England experienced double the normal amount of rain in June, 1998, with a 117 year-old record broken in Boston on June 13 – 14.
* New South Wales, Australia had its wettest August on record in 1998. A storm dumped 12 inches of rain on Sydney on August 15 – 17, while only 4 inches of rain normally falls there during the entire month.
10. Droughts and fires (as temperatures increase, droughts have become more frequent and severe in many areas).
* Mexico experienced its worse fire season ever in 1998, with 1.25 million acres burned during a severe drought. Smoke from the fires caused a statewide health alert in Texas.
* In 1999, several states in the Eastern U.S. had the driest growing season in 105 years, with 15 states declared agriculture disaster areas. In West Virginia alone, losses exceeded $80 million.
These are just a small sampling of recent events with possible connections to global warming. While no single event offers conclusive proof that global warming is occurring, the sum total of so many cases, along with the overall global temperature increases, has led a vast majority of climate scientists to agree on the reality of global warming. And there are news reports of additional examples almost weekly. For example:
* A study appearing in the September 2000 journal Science concludes that 26 bodies of water in the Northern Hemisphere are freezing an average of 8.7 days later and thawing out 9.8 days earlier than they did 150 years ago.
* According to scientists assembled in Indonesia at a major coral reef conference, more than 25 percent of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed by global warming, pollution, and destructive fishing techniques. Most of the rest could be lost in the next twenty years if serious action isn’t taken to address these problems.[x] Up to 90 percent of coral reefs have been killed around the Maldives and Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean.[xi] Loss of the world’s reefs would not only be a major blow to the environment and biodiversity, but also to the 500 million people around the world who depend on coral reef systems for part of their food or livelihood.
* England’s Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested that global warming is contributing to the country’s disastrous weather when very heavy rains brought the most widespread flooding Britain has seen in 50 years in October and November of 2000.[xii] Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott stated the storms should serve as a “wake-up call for everyone” about the impacts of global warming.[xiii] Meanwhile, the first comprehensive scientific assessment of the effects of climate change in Europe predicted more flooding in northern European countries like Britain and more heat and drought in southern European countries.[xiv]
RESPONSES TO GLOBAL WARMING
How should the world respond to the threat of global climate change? In part by applying the Jewish teachings analyzed in previous chapters, including:
* bal tashchit (you shall not waste): Conserving energy and increasing the efficiency of energy use would reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.
* “The earth is the Lord’s”: Judaism mandates a sacred obligation to protect the integrity of ecological systems so that their diverse constituent species, including humans, can thrive.
* The sanctity of every life: The agricultural, transportation, and energy approaches that minimize emission of greenhouse gases reduce the threats to human life discussed above, now and for future generations.
* Consideration of the loves and needs of future generations: Rapid climate change threatens the very existence of future generations. Conservation and renewable energy thus help insure that human life will continue.
* “Justice, justice shall you pursue”: Actions to address climate change should also protect those most vulnerable to climate change, including poor people, those living in coastal areas, and subsistence farmers. Along with reducing global warming by weaning ourselves off of depletable and polluting energy sources, it is important to aid the poor in acquiring heat and transportation and to assist dislocated energy workers and others affected by the changes.
* Proper use of God’s cycles of sun, wind, and water: Use of solar, wind, and other renewal forms of energy reduces emission of greenhouse gases.
Several Jewish groups, including the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL)[xv] and its parent body, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), the national coordinating organization for the thirteen national and 125 local Jewish community relations agencies, have been urging their members to contact elected officials to stress the harmful effects of global climate change, and to urge them to support effective remedies. These groups support the position that industrial nations’ emissions should be decreased below 1990 levels by 2010. They also propose that the US and other industrialized countries take the leadership role, as we are primarily responsible for the problem. However, they also recommend that developing nations — whose emissions, while still far below these of industrialized countries per capita are sharply rising — should likewise be required by treaties to commit to emission reductions.
On October 27, 1997, the JCPA unanimously adopted a comprehensive statement based on Jewish values and teachings, “Confronting the Challenge of Climate Change”[xvi]. It includes the following:
“The Jewish Council for Public Affairs urges the Jewish community, and all other Americans, to conduct energy audits of, and institute energy efficiency technologies and practices into, private homes and communal facilities, including synagogues, schools, community centers, and commercial buildings….
“Furthermore, we call on JCPA member agencies to initiate dialogues with Jewish businesspeople and the broader business community aimed at increasing responsible participation by business in addressing global climate change….
“Together, the people of the world can, and must, use our God-given gifts to develop innovative strategies to meet the needs of all who currently dwell on this planet without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Consistent with Jewish teachings, the JCPA statement also urged the following policies:
* The U.S. government should negotiate, and the U.S. Senate should ratify, binding international agreements to minimize climate change by committing the world’s nations to reduce their current and projected emissions in order to stabilize atmospheric carbon concentrations so that they that will not result in widespread human and/or ecological harm.
* Congress should appropriate the funds necessary to fulfill our nation’s responsibility to reduce global carbon emissions, as “an important down-payment on what will be needed to achieve safe atmospheric carbon levels in the long run.”
* The federal government should immediately adopt policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly programs which employ economic incentives to lower demand for fossil fuels, in order to encourage the development of non-polluting energy sources, and to raise revenue for public projects, such as mass transit, that would lower carbon emissions.
* The government should also adopt standards, such as power plant emissions standards and motor vehicle fuel efficiency (so-called CAFÉ) standards, that require the use of the best fuel-efficiency and emissions- reduction technologies available.
The important, comprehensive statement on energy signed by over 600 U.S. rabbis and other religious leaders that was discussed in the last chapter also included a statement on global warming.[xvii]
“These concerns have entirely unprecedented moral urgency in the 21st century. In its reliance on fossil fuels, American energy policy is a cause of global climate change…. We must join in binding international agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol, which set energy conservation targets and timetables. Preventing climate change is a preeminent expression of faithfulness to our Creator, God. Energy conservation is global leadership and solidarity.”
Unfortunately, instead of responding to the global warming problem, in 2001 U.S. President George W. Bush chose not to act. First, he reversed his campaign promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, the biggest U.S. contributor to global warming. Defending his decision, Bush insisted that “an energy crisis” threatening the country’s economic health had caused him to back away from his pledge. Next, the President decided to withdraw U.S. support for the Kyoto Protocol, an international global warming treaty, claiming it places an unfair burden on the United States, even [xviii] though the U.S., with only about 4 percent of the world’s population is responsible for 25 percent of gasses that contribute to global warming. IPCC Chair Robert Watson argues that the U.S. should be doing far more: “A country like China has done more, in my opinion, than a country like the United States to move forward in economic development while remaining environmentally sensitive.”[xix]
Reduction of fossil fuel emissions can improve, not hinder, our economy, since reductions can be based on strategies such as improving energy efficiency, changing to renewable energy sources, improving mass transit, preserving and planting forests, and encouraging people to shift to plant-based diets. These approaches have the added benefits of reducing air and water pollution, creating jobs, and reducing expenditures for energy. Contrary to a common perception that reducing global warming will have major negative economic effects, a properly financed, public-private global transition to high-efficiency and renewable energy technologies could produce an unprecedented worldwide economic boom involving the creation of millions of new jobs, a reversal of the widening economic gap between people living in the northern and southern hemispheres, the raising of living standards in developing nations (without compromising the economic achievements of industrial nations), and the establishment of the renewable energy industry as the central driving engine of growth of the global economy.[xx] The technology and knowledge are already available; all that is needed is vision and dedicated efforts to promote the proper policies.
Jews should play a leading role in the efforts to reduce global climate change, in order to fulfill the mandate that we should be co-workers with God in preserving the world, and to illustrate how Jewish values can have a major impact on the solution of global problems.
[iii] New York Times, Andrew C. Revkin, October 26, 2000, http://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/26/science/26CLIM.html; also see Ed Ayres, “Leaked report says climate scientists now see higher projected temperatures,” Worldwatch, January/February 2001, 11.
[v] Tiffany Wu, “Earth warming faster than expected, humans to blame,” January 22, 2001, http://www.enn.com/news/wire-stories//2001/01/01222001/reu_warming_41528.asp.
[vi] Clare Nullis, “Report Shows Global Warming Risks,” Associated Press Report, February 19, 2001.
[vii] http://www.climatehotmap.org; also see “Taking the Earth’s temperature for March,” Grist Magazine, Leonie Haimson, April 20, 2000.http://www.gristmagazine.com/grist/heatbeat/weather042000.stm
[x] Salt Lake Deseret News, Associated Press, October 24, 2000, http://www.deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,215006688,00.html.
[xii] Fox News, Associated Press, November 3, 2000, http://www.foxnews.com/world/110300/britainstorms.sml, London Telegraph, George Jones, David Graves, and Charles Clover, Nov. 1, 2000,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk:80/et?ac=001804310706412&rtmo=aC6hdJqJ&atmo=gggggggK&pg=/et/00/11/1/nwet01.html, London Independent, Michael McCarthy, Nov. 2, 2000, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/UK/This_Britain/2000-11/flood021100.shtml.
[xx] An extensive analysis of steps to reverse global warming and benefits of such a reversal are at http://www.heatisonline.org/contentserver/objecthandlers/index.cfm?id=3138&method=full.
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, College of Staten Island
Author of “Judaism and Vegetarianism,” “Judaism and Global Survival,” and “Mathematics and Global Survival,” and over 130 articles at www.JewishVeg.com/schwartz
President of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) www.JewishVeg.com
and Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV)
Associate Producer of A SACRED DUTY (asacredduty.com)
Director of Veg Climate Alliance (www.vegclimatealliance.org)