In his day job Yonatan Malin PhD is popular Associate Professor in the College of Music and Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. He teaches music theory and conducts research on Jewish music and 19th century art songs. He is the author of Songs in Motion: Rhythm and Meter in the German Lied , as well as numerous articles and reviews on music. For example, he wrote, produced, and performed in “The Beregovski Archives: Klezmer Stories from Soviet Ukraine to Boulder.”
In his “free time” Yonatan is a “climate hero” – something all of us can do. He leads the Jewish Action Team for the Citizen Climates Lobby (CCL). CCL is a climate change organization that exists to create the political will for a livable world by enabling individual breakthroughs in the exercise of personal and political power. In his role with CCL, Yonatan engages in outreach. He educates, cajoles, and motivates folks in the Jewish community to get engaged. CCL’s Jewish Action Team also provide support for Jewish volunteers within CCL, helping them see this work in a Jewish context.
I had a chance to ask Yonatan about this work and how others can get involved and make a difference.
How did you get interested in working on climate issues?
I have been concerned about climate change for a long time. It upset me to find out that we have been altering the earth’s atmosphere, bringing greenhouse gases to levels that have never been seen in human history with potentially catastrophic effects. Also, my wife is an environmental scientist; I learn from her, and we have both been motivated to work on climate issues.
Is this connected to your Jewish involvement and identity? If so, in what way?
That’s a great question! My parents are Israeli, they were born and grew up in Tel Aviv, and in that context “Jewish identity” was not something that they thought about much. My mother, Tova, identified with her socialist youth group (Hashomer Hatzair) and my father, Shimon (alav ha-shalom) was a member as well. I adopted their stance in many ways—so for me, being Jewish was so fundamental that I didn’t think about it very much.
On the other hand, certain aspects of being Jewish may have led me to be concerned about climate change. I often think of myself as being different, being an outsider in some ways. That is a Jewish mindset, which comes from thousands of years living in the diaspora. And it’s a mindset that leads me to ask questions. Is our life now sustainable? Is the way we do things right, or is it just habit? Can society change, and if so, how?
Once you knew you wanted to do something on climate issues, where did you go for resources, mentoring or involvement?
For a long time, I didn’t know where to go. We did what we could in our own lives. I walked or rode my bike to work, we got solar panels on our house in 2008 and a heat-pump water heater around then as well. But I didn’t know how to leverage this towards systemic change.
Then, in 2013, I read an opinion piece about Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) in the New York Times. It was by David Borstein, and it was called “Lobbying for the Greater Good.” I was hooked. I loved the model of building the political will for a livable world, and of having citizen activists who are trained and empowered to work at both grassroots and national levels. The article highlighted successes, and that’s part of what drew me in. I joined our CCL chapter in Boulder Colorado and have been working with CCL ever since.
What did you find helpful/successful?
CCL has monthly meetings, both local and national, to educate and motivate its volunteers. It was helpful to be part of a group, to get to know people, and to feel that everything I did contributed to our work together. When I publish a letter to the editor or give a presentation, it is acknowledged and celebrated.
CCL also has lots of trainings, and there are new ones all the time. There are trainings on how to lobby, how to write letters to the editor and op-eds, how to give presentations, and how to have productive conversations with people across the political spectrum. There are trainings on policy and pathways to decarbonization such as carbon pricing, carbon border adjustments, permitting reform, building efficiency and electrification, En-ROADS (a global climate simulator), and more.
There are so many ways to help. How did you pick your “lane” and what is it?
I like writing, so I started out writing letters to the editor in our local newspaper. I found out (from CCL) that this is effective not only because it helps get the word out to readers, but also because members of Congress pay attention—especially if they are mentioned in the letter. I also enjoy talking with people, so I look for support for climate policies from leaders in the Jewish community. And I lobby Congress! I have been in meetings with our members of Congress—on Zoom during the pandemic and in person last summer, in Washington DC.
How do you go about doing this?
Great question! Basically, I draw on skills that I already have. I am a researcher, writer, and teacher, so I draw on all these skills. I also draw on CCL trainings and I learn what I can from other sources, including conversations with friends, family members, and other volunteers and staff in CCL.
Do you have partners? Who are they and how did you build your team?
I have a wonderful steering committee within the CCL Jewish Action Team. And we partner with other Jewish climate organizations such as Jewish Earth Alliance, the Jewish Climate Leadership Coalition (part of Adamah), the Jewish Youth Climate Movement (also part of Adamah), Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action, and the Jewish Climate Action Network (JCAN). The Jewish climate space used to be sparsely populated and lonely. Now it is active and full of life!
What have been some of your biggest successes?
I am so glad you asked! Here are three: (1) I lobbied last June in Washington DC for the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed later that summer. It is the biggest piece of climate legislation that this country has ever passed, and it is setting us on a path to decarbonize huge sectors of the economy. (2) I helped organize a session last fall on “Jewish Youth in Action” with speakers from the Jewish Youth Climate Movement, the Reform Youth Movement (NFTY), Dayenu, and the CCL Youth Action Team. (3) I published an op-ed on Jewish climate action in The Forward in the fall of 2019.
I assume there have been some times when you felt you hit a brick wall. Can you give us an example of that and how you pivoted to do something that worked better?
Yes, there are times when I felt discouraged. CCL has advocated for carbon pricing as the most effective way to decarbonize the entire economy while also supporting lower income folks with carbon cashback payments. I poured my heart and soul into this idea, hoping that others would agree; sometimes they did not.
I pivoted by embracing common ground. For instance, the Inflation Reduction Act does not include a price on carbon, but it is effective in other ways—in fact, it is transformational. (It does include a price on methane emissions, which is important.) I supported and lobbied for the Inflation Reduction Act along with other CCL volunteers and many climate organizations.
Can you tell us about something that you find exciting about what you are doing and where and how others can help? What legislation or steps do you feel are most important to focus on now?
Wow, there are so many exciting things happening. But I am most excited now about electrification. Essentially, there are two steps to decarbonizing the economy: we shift to renewable power generation (this is already happening) and we electrify our cars, homes, and buildings.
Think about it—even five years ago, did you know anyone who did not use fossil fuels in their daily lives? It was rare. Now it is becoming more common. My family and I no longer use fossil fuels in our daily lives—not for transportation (we have a fully electric Nissan Leaf), not for heating or cooling (we heat and cool our home with air source heat pumps), and not for cooking or heating water. We are no longer oil or gas customers. It takes time and work, but it is doable, especially with the large incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act. Go to Rewiring America for more information.
Our synagogues and Jewish community centers can also electrify and stop using fossil fuels. In practical terms, this wasn’t possible even a few years ago. Now it is. The technologies and incentives are in place, and it saves money. See the wealth of resources including interest free loans and matching grants from the Jewish Climate Leadership Coalition.
What is your advice for other people who are just getting their start on climate issues?
I would say a few things. (1) Focus on solutions. Climate change is big and this can lead us to feel hopeless. When we are hopeless, we don’t act. But there are solutions, and they are already underway. (2) Celebrate and share successes, however small. A good conversation with a friend. A neighbor who bought an electric car. A letter to the editor published in your local newspaper. (3) Join a climate organization, work with others. As Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi would say, “The only way to get it together is together.”
Where should folks begin?
I was going to give some advice on this. But actually, I would say it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you begin. Once you begin, it is easier to continue. And if you stop for a while, that’s ok, begin again. Celebrate each beginning. And remember that you are doing sacred work.