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

How a Climate Catastrophe Can Be Averted  

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the world is rapidly approaching an unprecedented climate catastrophe, so severe that all of human life would be very negatively affected and possibly even eliminated before the end of this century unless major positive changes soon occur.

This article discusses why the situation is so serious and then the one possibility of averting the catastrophe and shifting our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.

Climate groups have been issuing increasingly dire warnings of the seriousness of climate threats. 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, in May 2022 it was announced that atmospheric carbon dioxide had reached a record level, indicating that the world is still heading in the wrong direction with regard to climate change.

Because of  many stark warnings, like the one above, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stated at the recently concluded COP27 climate conference that, “the world is on a highway to climate hell,” and previously, that the climate situation is a “Code Red for Humanity” and “delay means death.”

Facts on the ground reinforce the warnings. The last eight years were the hottest since 1880, when climatologist started to record worldwide temperatures. There has been very rapid melting of glaciers worldwide, Arctic ice sheets, and permafrost. Sea levels are rising rapidly, with “sunny day” flooding due to higher tides already in some coastal cities. The year 2022 continued a trend of increased frequency and severity of droughts, heat waves, wildfires, storms, and floods, with many records being broken.

As devastating as recent climate events have been, 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 1.1 degrees Celsius (about two degrees Fahrenheit) since the start of the industrial revolution, climate experts project that this 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. Also, as ice caps melt, there is less reflection of sunlight back into space and more absorption of the sun’s heat by land and water.
  • 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 resulted in civil wars in both Sudan and Syria.

Israel is especially threatened by climate change because the Middle East is becoming hotter and drier than most areas, increasing the potential for future violence, and the coastal plain where most of Israel’s population and infrastructure are located could be inundated by a rising Mediterranean Sea. A Jerusalem Post article, “Unprecedented, extreme weather to hit Mideast, Med” (September 8, 2022), indicated that by the end of this century there could be “an overall warming of 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit), more than four times the present warming since the start of the industrial revolution, and Israel and neighboring countries “are going to be affected by unprecedented and societally disruptive extreme weather events, including heat waves, droughts, dust storms, and torrential rains.”

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.” Among the many positive steps that should be taken are shifting away from fossil fuels to solar, wind, and other renewable forms of energy; designing more efficient cars, lightbulbs, and other items; improving public transportation so that more people will use it; recycling; and composting.

However, as president emeritus of Jewish Veg and author of “Vegan Revolution: Saving Our World, Revitalizing Judaism,” I have come to realize that there is one approach that has by far the greatest potential to help avert a climate catastrophe. We need a society-wide shift toward plant-based diets. This is the only approach that both significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions and also reduces atmospheric CO2. Such a shift would result in far fewer cows and other farmed animals emitting methane, a very potent greenhouse gas with about 80 times the ability to heat up the planet as CO2 per unit weight during the 10 to 20 years it remains in the atmosphere. It also has the potential of dramatically reducing CO2 presently in the atmosphere by permitting reforesting of the over a third of the world’s ice-free land that is currently being used for grazing and raising feed crops for animals. This would reduce the current very dangerous level of CO2 in the atmosphere to a much safer one.

Unfortunately, the opposite is happening.  According to a Jerusalem Post August 14, 2022 article, “Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest through July hits new record.”We are literally eating our way toward extinction.     

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, as the title of a book by Buckminster Fuller puts it, we may have a choice today between “Utopia or Oblivion.” And it would not be utopian if people become aware that the climate situation is a “Code Red for humanity,” with all of human life threatened, and that they can get plant substitutes with the appearance, texture, and taste indistinguishable from meat and other animal products.

It is essential that we Jews “choose life” by shifting to plant-based diets that are good for our lives and health, the lives of animals, and the life of our precious planet. This would be consistent with the Jewish mandate to be a “light unto the nations,” and could inspire many others to make similar dietary changes, helping to shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path. It would also be consistent with basic Jewish mandates to preserve our health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help the hungry, and pursue peace.

It is essential that this reforestation happens because 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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