Richard H. Schwartz
Vegan, climate change,and social justice activist

Applying Jewish Values To Help Avert a Climate Catastrophe

It is becoming increasingly evident that the world is rapidly approaching a climate catastrophe and that there is little time to make the changes that might prevent it. Jewish teachings and traditions position us to effectively help efforts to shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization composed of climate experts from many countries, warned that “unprecedented changes” were needed by 2030 for the world to have a chance to avert a climate catastrophe. Despite that warning, atmospheric carbon dioxide continues to increase. Indeed, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stated that the climate situation is a “Code Red for Humanity” and that “delay means death.”

The year 2022 was unprecedented for the frequency and severity of droughts, heat waves, wildfires, storms, and floods, with many records being broken.

As devastating as climate events have been recently, prospects for the future are even more frightening for four very important reasons:

  • While all the recent severe climate events have occurred at a time when the global temperature has risen about 1.2 degrees Celsius (about 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) since the start of the industrial revolution, climate experts project that this likely will at least triple by the end of this century, triggering far worse climate events.
  • While climate experts believe that 350 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric carbon dioxide is a threshold value to avert the worse effects of climate change, the world has reached 420 ppm and it is increasing at 2 – 3 ppm per year.
  • Climate experts fear that self-reinforcing positive feedback loops (vicious cycles) could result in an irreversible tipping point such that global warming will rise uncontrollably, with catastrophic results. One example is that as the world gets hotter, more air conditioning will be used, meaning that more fossil fuel will be burned. This will release more greenhouse gases, heating the atmosphere even more, resulting in still more use of air conditioning, etc.
  • Military experts are warning that there will likely be tens of millions of desperate refugees fleeing from severe heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, floods, and other climate events, which will promote social and political instability, terrorism, and war. Severe droughts already caused major migrations that contributed to civil wars in both Sudan and Syria.

Because of the above factors, averting a climate catastrophe must become a central focus for civilization today. Every aspect of life should be considered in terms of reducing “carbon footprints.” We need to shift from fossil fuels to solar, wind, and other renewable forms of energy; produce more efficient cars, lightbulbs, and other items; improve public transportation,; recycle and compost.

Here are some examples of Jewish environmental teachings that should be applied in efforts to stabilize climate:

  • The Jewish sages interpreted the dominion that God gave humans in Genesis 1 as responsible stewardship.
  • This view is reinforced by Genesis 2:15, in which God tells Adam to till the land in the Garden of Eden, but also to guard it. So, we are to be guardians of the earth, co-workers with God in protecting the environment.  
  • The Jewish sages expanded Deuteronomy 20: 19, 20, which forbids the destruction of fruit-bearing trees in wartime, into a general prohibition against waste and unnecessary destruction.

As president emeritus of Jewish Veg and author of “Vegan Revolution: Saving Our World, Revitalizing Judaism,” I want to stress the approach that has by far the greatest potential to help avert a climate catastrophe  — a societal shift toward vegan diets. Such a shift would be consistent with Jewish teachings on preserving human health, treating animals compassionately, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, reducing hunger, and pursuing peace.

This shift would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, because there would be far fewer cows and other farmed animals emitting methane, a very potent greenhouse gas with over 80 times the ability to heat up the planet as CO2 per unit weight during its 10 – 15 years in the atmosphere. It also has the potential of dramatically reducing CO2 presently in the atmosphere by permitting reforesting the over 40 percent of the world’s ice-free land that is currently being used for grazing and raising feed crops for animals. This could reduce the current very dangerous level of atmospheric CO2  to a much safer one. Unfortunately, the opposite is happening, because forests continue to be destroyed for animal-based agriculture We are literally eating our way to extinction.

Taking into account the lost “opportunity cost” of not permitting reforestation to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere, systems engineer Sailesh Rao, PhD argues in his paper, “Animal Agriculture Is the Leading Cause of Climate Change,” published in the Journal of Ecological Society, that animal agriculture is responsible for 87% of human-caused greenhouse gasses.

Bottom line: To have a chance for a decent, habitable, environmentally sustainable world for future generations, there must be a society-wide shift toward vegan diets. A Utopian dream? Perhaps, but it might not be utopian if people became aware that they can get plant substitutes with nearly identical appearance, texture, and taste to meat and other animal products.

It is essential that meat consumption is sharply reduced and that major reforestation occurs. There is no planet B. Nor is there an effective Plan B.

About the Author
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal our Imperiled Planet, and Mathematics and Global Survival, and over 200 articles and 25 podcasts at He is President Emeritus of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) and President of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV). He is associate producer of the 2007 documentary “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.” He is also a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Staten Island, which is part of the City University of New York.
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