Could Jews Make A Dent In Solving Climate Change?

When we unite in tackling a problem, we can punch far above our weight.

This is the final instalment of a 3-part series seeking to formulate a Jewish approach to Climate Change. In our first post, we looked at both sides of the Climate Change debate, concluding that denialism seems to no longer be a feasible option. In our second post, we sought to show that Judaism makes us responsible to ensure that we conduct ourselves in a way that doesn’t excessively damage the environment. In this final post, we will look specifically at Climate Change and seek to determine how we as Jews should respond.

As the title suggests, we will be arguing that there’s a lot that we as Jews can and should be doing about Climate Change. But before we get to that, not everyone reading will necessarily be convinced that we should be doing anything about it at all. For instance:

  1. Although Judaism may oppose excessive damage to the environment, who says the damage from Climate Change is really excessive? Maybe that’s just the price we have to pay for modern living!
  2. Given that Climate Change is not a localised problem, but one involving the whole future of the planet, maybe this is just part of God’s plan for world history, and it’s not our business to interfere!

1. Will the damage be excessive?

Climate scientists have found that since the start of the Industrial Revolution, around 250 years ago, the average global temperature has gone up by roughly one degree celsius as a result of humanly caused greenhouse gas emissions. In coming decades, if current trends persist, that figure could rise to 2 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures or even significantly higher.

The likely impacts? Here are some:

Sea-level rise

The rise of global temperatures will inevitably lead to the rise of ocean levels worldwide. As the temperature of the water increases, so does its volume. Higher temperatures will also lead to the melting of polar ice sheets and glaciers, raising the ocean levels further. This will affect the viability of coastal cities worldwide, home for many millions of people.

Heatwave frequency

The rise of global temperatures will also inevitably lead to more frequent and intense heat waves, which will likely cause loss of human life. The European heatwave of 2003 was found to have led to the deaths of over 70,000 people! Now, normally heatwaves don’t lead to deaths in the thousands, and there were a number of other factors that contributed there, but the point is that heatwaves are not just unpleasant, they’re life-threatening.

Water scarcity and extinction of species

The higher temperatures rise, the greater the risk of extreme water scarcity in many regions of the globe, threatening hundreds of millions of people with hunger, disease and war. The faster they rise, the greater the risk of extinction of many species not equipped to adapt to the change in temperature. Flowing on from this would be major disruption of the food chain, which could also affect us severely.

There are also forms of damage that Climate Change might be causing that we aren’t even fully aware of yet. For instance, although the jury isn’t yet in on this, some studies suggest that Climate Change could be a contributor to some of the major calamities that are happening already, such as hurricanes and wildfires, making them far more frequent and devastating than before.

The Bottom Line

Climate scientists as a whole are extremely concerned with a whole range of perils that could ensue if nothing is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, although admittedly there is a range in the level of concern. Those at the more optimistic end of the spectrum expect that the major upheavals will happen in the developing world to countries that cannot afford to adapt to changing conditions. For the developed world, they expect that it might not be more than a costly and uncomfortable nuisance that we will have to adapt to. Those at the very pessimistic end, probably a very small proportion, think that human life itself is in danger of extinction.

Even if we go with the most optimistic view, we are still talking about causing the environment to change in ways that will be harmful to human health and property for many millions of people, as well as leading to the partial or total extinction of numerous species, and damaging the world in ways which will be largely irreversible. This clearly seems totally contrary to what the Torah expects from us.

Now, if we had no alternative to fossil-fuels and dealing with the problem required us to return to a cave-dwelling existence, then perhaps the cost-benefit calculus would be a tricky one to make. However, with the ongoing development of cheap renewable energy, we are not in that situation at all. It seems to be a no-brainer that maintaining the status-quo will lead to a level of damage Judaism would consider unacceptable.

  1. Part of God’s plan?

There are a number of arguments one could present to argue that Climate Change is not just an ordinary example of environmental damage, but could be part of a greater Divine plan for world history. Briefly:

  • The global scope of the problem implies this is more God’s department than ours.
  • Biblical and Talmudic descriptions of the End of Days speak of massively destructive events that could happen prior to or following the Messianic redemption.
  • It may end up being beyond humanity’s ability to solve.

Now, as we’ve already said, it’s not at all clear that Climate Change will be apocalyptic, so there’s no reason to assume that it is part of the Messianic era. Nevertheless, we can’t rule out the possibility that Climate Change and its effects are part of God’s historical plan. However, it would be irresponsible to assume it to be the case and do nothing about it.

In cases like this, where we are uncertain of God’s will, traditional Jewish thought encourages following a formula known as השתדלות ובטחון – a combination of initiative and trust in God. We place our trust in God that He will facilitate what He – from His Divine perspective – considers to be the optimal outcome. At the same time, God doesn’t just want us to sit there and wait for a miracle. We must use our initiative. Whether we succeed or fail, we trust that that is the outcome that was meant to be.

Rabbinic opinions

I wanted to confirm my views on the above with rabbis of greater stature than myself. I approached three highly respected rabbis and asked them whether there was any reason according to Judaism that we should not be taking Climate Change seriously or that we shouldn’t be playing a part to do something about it.

Rav Shlomo Levi, Rosh Kollel at Yeshivat Har Etzion and a highly respected halachic authority, thought the very questions were ludicrous. It was self-evident to him that we must follow the scientific consensus and that there was no religious basis to not do our part about the problem.

Rav Micha Cohn, a Dayan in Choshen Mishpat from the Charedi world, has written about the implications of Climate Change (http://matzav.com/climate-change-from-a-torah-perspective-should-we-care/) and told me that if the science is reliable, this is certainly an issue that should concern us.

Rav Eliezer Melamed, a prominent Rosh Yeshiva and author of many popular halachic works, affirmed that Judaism offers no basis to not take the issue seriously, and those who are convinced that there is a need to take action, should cautiously do so.

Additionally, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written about the serious threat of Climate Change and our duty to deal with it as part of the responsibility of stewardship with which we have been entrusted by God.

What needs to be done?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a body of world-class scientists whose role is to advise governments about the latest findings on climate change. Their most recent report came out recently and says that we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions radically by 2030 to keep the temperature increase at no more than 1.5ºC thereby preventing the most serious impacts.

Some scientists have been discussing alternative approaches involving climate engineering, artificially manipulating climate processes in a way which will counteract the warming trend. However, that is considered an extremely risky business, potentially exposing us to several perilous climatic side-effects. More research needs to be done to see whether this can be done safely. If we don’t succeed in reducing emissions sufficiently in the first instance, we may have to resort to this approach in the future.

So tachlis, can religious Jews really make a difference?

Once we’ve concluded that according to Judaism we should be doing something about it, the challenge is working out what to do. Installing solar power or writing to one’s government representatives are nice gestures, but realistically they’ll only make a microscopic dent in the problem. Even if we get the whole religious community involved, in global terms we are minuscule. Can we really make any difference?

Furthermore, it’s not like this is the only problem we have on our plates. With concerns about Jewish survival, physical and spiritual, while possessing limited time, energy and resources, how much of those can we afford to invest on this issue?

In response, I would like to point out that what we perhaps lack in physical influence we more than make up for in spiritual influence. As religious Jews, we believe in the awesome power of Torah and tefillah (prayer) to sustain the world and it is they that have enabled us to survive and thrive against tremendous odds, not to mention influencing the world profoundly in many ways.

Although this may sound somewhat unconventional, if we daven for God’s assistance, we may just receive the siyata diShmaya (Divine assistance) needed to solve the problem. Presumably this would be the most basic hishtadlut (initiative) that God would expect us to take.

Moreover, even through our physical efforts we may be able to achieve a lot. If religious Jews unite with a strong message that it is our religious duty to protect the world, perhaps Jews of all stripes will sit up and take notice. And if the entire Jewish world works together on any undertaking, we could indeed exert a lot of influence. It may be surprising to hear, but historians have credited the Soviet Jewry Movement with being a catalyst that started the collapse of the Soviet Union. If God is behind us, there’s no telling what we might achieve.

Epilogue: Thinking Ahead

Our sages tell us of the scholar, Choni Hame’agel, who was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. On discovering that it takes 70 years for a carob tree to bear fruit, he asked the man if he was confident he would live long enough to enjoy it. The man responded, “I found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.”

The lesson for us, as we celebrate Tu Bishvat this year, is clear. Our Talmud tells us: “Who is wise? One who can see what is yet to be born” (Tamid 32a). In other words, one who can anticipate future developments and respond appropriately. Climate Change is an issue the full force of which we have not yet faced. As time progresses, however, we have good reason to expect that we and future generations will be feeling its effects more and more and its implications have the potential to be massive. Given that God has given us the opportunity to foresee the various possibilities, it would be extremely short-sighted of us, and potentially very costly to our descendants, to bury our heads in the sand and ignore it.

Throughout our history we have succeeded in rising to the challenge and overcoming formidable problems. May we be worthy of the insight and influence necessary to deal with this one as well. There’s potentially a lot at stake.

About the Author
Rabbi Danny Eisenberg is an Orthodox rabbi living in Sydney, Australia. Having studied many years at Yeshivat Har Etzion, he received ordination from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. He has served as Rosh Kollel Torah Mitzion in Sydney and worked in the rabbinate and Jewish education for a decade. Currently a member of the Sydney Kollel, he works part-time as a software developer at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes.
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