A politically-conservative, Orthodox rabbi reconsiders his stance
Some readers of the title will likely respond with disdain, “What a stupid question? Obviously we should be concerned!” Others may have the diametrically-opposite reaction, “Don’t be ridiculous! The whole thing is a left-wing meshugas!” (a craze or hype).
So where does the truth actually lie? For me, getting to the bottom of that question has been something of a personal journey.
My Initial Encounter with Climate Change
It was in 2008. After having concluded 9 years of yeshiva studies in Israel, I returned to my home-town of Sydney to engage in Jewish education and rabbinical work.
During my first year back, I was approached by someone I knew who had, at one time, been interested in Torah observance. He wanted my help. He was now an environmentalist, no longer religious, but wanted to make a presentation on the Torah’s position on protecting the environment. He needed help finding source material. “You rabbis should really be getting involved in this,” he urged me, “We’re destroying the planet.” And with that he began to show me what scientists were saying about humanly-caused global warming, or – as it’s technically known – Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW).
At the time, I sought to shrug off his urging. After all, I reasoned, the Orthodox world is not getting into a flap about global warming. Secular liberals have warned of apocalyptic scenarios for decades, whether by nuclear war or overpopulation. People who believe that there is a Master of the Universe need not fear. Presumably the scientific evidence is speculative; and even if not, presumably this is part of the God’s plan. It is not the job of Torah Jews to be engaged in environmental activism, I thought. Orthodoxy’s notion of “Tikkun Olam” (“repairing the world”) does not mean joining Greenpeace, but perfecting the world spiritually through engagement in Torah and mitzvot. To sum it up, my conclusion at that time was that Climate Change was nothing more than a hype. And with that, I gave it no more serious thought.
A Wakeup Call
Fast forward nine years. In 2016, after several years dedicated to the rabbinical field, I began working in computer software development. Without ideology playing any part, the first job I found was at the Climate Change Research Centre (CCRC) at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney. There I worked with climate scientists who were constructing computerised climate models to simulate climate behaviour. My job was to write software which would enable them to evaluate how well their models were doing. It was here that I once again seriously encountered the issue of Climate Change. I would now have to examine whether my dismissive position would stand up to scrutiny.
What the scientists say
What I discovered was quite eye-opening. Although in the media and the political sphere, debate was raging about whether global warming was real and, if so, whether it was caused by humans, I learned from my colleagues that amongst climate scientists the world over there was virtually no debate whatsoever regarding these questions any more. For well over a decade, there was a scientific consensus that AGW was real and happening, and that it was a great source of concern.
The message I was getting was that this wasn’t mere hype and needed to be taken seriously. At the same time, in contrast to the impression created by my environmentalist friend, we were not talking about the end of the world itself if we do nothing. My colleagues spoke more about the significanty-increased risks of various large-scale problems, such as extreme heatwaves, severe water shortages in some regions, the spread of disease, global refugee problems resulting from sea-level rise, damage to various ecosystems and more. Very serious with life-threatening implications to be sure, but unlikely to be apocalyptic. This was a far more nuanced and complex approach than the one I had previously encountered.
So who is in the consensus?
The scientists in question are those who publish papers in peer-reviewed journals and are currently active in the field. (To be treated as serious science, a paper must pass a rigorous peer-review process.) According to a number of studies, between 90% and 100% of such scientists were in agreement that Anthropogenic Global Warming was real. (Some argue that the true figure is somewhere between 80% and 90%.)
This included scientists from the leading scientific organizations, like NASA, and the top universities around the world. This finding was also endorsed by the major scientific organizations worldwide, including US National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of the United Kingdom and the Russian Academy of Sciences, to name just a few.
What to make of the scientific consensus
Normally-speaking, accepting the scientific consensus should be the default position. We rely upon scientific opinion every day in thousands of ways, even though we don’t have the expertise to evaluate it. We don’t question the fundamentals of aeronautics before we get on a plane. We acknowledge that it’s too complex for us to understand, but we see that it works and we trust the experts.
In order to dispute the scientific consensus, and one as strong as this, one would need to offer a particularly strong argument.
A conspiracy theory?
One possible response is to suggest that the scientific consensus is driven by some sort of left-wing, environmentalist conspiracy. Climate scientists are probably environmentalists at heart, concerned about the possible dangers of greenhouse gases and perhaps they are making a bigger deal about it than they really have evidence for.
So, for example, some might point to dire predictions made by environmentalists, such as Al Gore, which many argue were shown to be way-overstated. Others might point to claims that various climate-related organizations played with their figures to support the conclusion of Climate Change.
I’m not really a big fan of conspiracy theories myself, and the specific conspiracy claims that I’ve come across have not actually stood up to scrutiny. But beyond that, think about the size of the conspiracy we’d be talking about. All the aforementioned organizations (NASA, National Academy of Sciences, etc) would have to be in on it. What’s more, there are highly-regarded climate scientists who are conservatives, such as Richard Alley, a member of the Republican party, who are also endorsing this position.
Who else? Well, there’s also Shell, the leading fossil-fuel producing company in the world, completely in support of this conclusion and working to redefine its business in order to end up on the right sight of history.
So, realistically, I think we can close the door on this possibility.
Maybe we could suggest something more nuanced; not that there is a conspiracy, but that the field of climate science is like an echo chamber, where Climate Change has become so widely accepted, that no one can think outside the box anymore.
Anyone who is over 30 will remember that cholesterol used to be the big dietary “no-no”. This was the accepted wisdom which no one in the medical field questioned. Then, one day, the medical profession announced that there’s “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol”. And then, that cholesterol isn’t really the problem; it’s actually carbs.
The philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, argued that this is part of the nature of scientific development. Once a paradigm takes hold for explaining the data, it will continue to prevail, even in the face of contradictory data. Only after a massive amount of contradictory data has accumulated does a paradigm shift happen and a new paradigm emerges to explain all the data.
Could Climate Change be a false paradigm that is waiting to be overthrown? We probably can’t rule that possibility out. However, to rely on such a suspicion to dismiss the scientific consensus is difficult to justify. As the Talmud says, “A judge only has what his eyes can see” (Bava Batra 131a). If we can’t rely on the scientific thinking of the day, there’s no point engaging in scientific research at all. Here, in particular, we don’t really have the luxury of waiting this one out. A strong majority of climate scientists tell us time is of the essence.
Everyone can judge for themselves, but it seems pretty clear that when it comes to the science the dismissive position is simply no longer tenable. (It seems that I’m not alone in changing my view, with a recent poll finding that in the US even a strong majority of Republicans now agree that Climate Change is happening.) On the other hand, apocalyptic alarmism seems to be an overreaction and, in my view, probably counterproductive.
The question is no longer whether we should be concerned, but rather, how concerned we should be. From a Jewish perspective, we will have to explore the theological issues we raised at the outset. Stay tuned…