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Climate change is the Jewish emergency you should be talking about

The threat to our communities could not be more dire, and yet it's still possible to take effective action
Home destroyed in Hurricane Sandy, New York, 2012 (Tamra Walker)
Home destroyed in Hurricane Sandy, New York, 2012 (Tamra Walker)

At a conference last week, a Jewish leader asked my spouse, “Is your wife still working on climate change?” My spouse answered, “Of course.” The Jewish leader responded, “But isn’t it too late?”

Let’s get right to the point: No, it’s not too late.

But it will be if we don’t take decisive action now. The first action every Jewish leader must take is to start talking about climate change in the office, in the boardroom, and everywhere else.

Climate change is an emergency. An emergency like “my house is burning,” or “a category 5 hurricane is about to hit my city,” or “it’s Yom Kippur and the Egyptian army has crossed the Suez canal.” It is a Jewish emergency. And, it is happening now. Just think back to this summer, when deadly heat waves, floods, and fires hit North America, Europe, and Asia and powerful cyclones devastated communities along both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Scene of destruction, Hurricane Sandy, 2012 (Tamra Walker)

In an emergency, reacting fast is the key to limiting the damage. That’s the message of the special report released two weeks ago by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC.) The report has been described as “seriously alarming but surprisingly hopeful.” It comes down to this: Racing to cut the amount of C02 released into the atmosphere in the next few years can limit the amount of global warming and save lives.

You may not have thought about climate change as a Jewish emergency. It’s time to think again. One clear example is that severe weather events are increasingly threatening Jewish communities. Two thousand Jewish families lost their homes to Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and the damage to Jewish institutions was severe. According to the director of the Jewish Federation, the ongoing recovery will eventually cost $40 to 50 million. Jewish communities should be planning ahead because hurricanes are getting stronger, lasting longer, and costing more.

Now the good news. We already have what we need to respond to this emergency. We just need to accelerate the pace of change. One key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is powering the electricity sector with renewable energy like solar and wind. That’s clearly feasible because it is already happening. Costs have come down so far that all renewables will be competitive with fossil fuels within two years. In the United States, solar and wind capacity are growing exponentially. In fact, Jewish organizations are increasingly supporting this transition by purchasing renewable power and installing solar energy systems.

Aid distribution to those affected by Hurricane Sandy, 2012 (Tamra Walker)

It won’t be easy, but there is precedent for mobilizing societies to confront emergencies like climate change. Experts point to the example of the U.S. response to World War II. After years of denial that war was approaching, the entire country – every individual, community, and business – mobilized to transform the food, education, industrial, and transportation sectors. Amazing feats were accomplished in just a few years, which enabled the Allies to win the war and usher in decades of economic and social progress.

Today’s deafening silence about climate change is not the fault of Jewish leaders. First, we are taking our cues from the culture around us. According to Media Matters for America, ABC and NBC never mentioned climate change in their reports about Hurricane Harvey – a storm that broke all records for rainfall. Climate change was hardly mentioned during the 2016 presidential elections. But Jewish leaders can and should do better.

Second, there are psychological reasons for avoiding the topic of climate change. The challenge can make people feel frightened and overwhelmed. But social scientists have learned that there are methods to communicate about climate change that inspire hope and compel action. One is to draw on Jewish wisdom, faith, and community.

If Jewish leaders don’t treat climate change like the emergency it is, why should the people we lead be concerned?

Talking about the problem, and about how every Jew can be part of the solution, is the first step to reining in climate change. There is no time to lose. Start talking now.

About the Author
Dr. Mirele B. Goldsmith is an environmental psychologist, educator, and activist. She is a founder of Jewish Climate Action Network-NYC.
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