The flood, the rainbow, and global warming

[Note: This sermon was delivered on October 13, 2018. With publication of Volume II of the Fourth National Climate Assessment by 13 federal agencies on November 23, 2018, we have yet another major report on the seriousness of this issue.]

The devastation caused by Hurricane Michael this past week could not have come at a more ironic time in the Jewish Torah reading cycle.

Our ancestors might have thought that floods are caused directly by God as a punishment for something humans have done. But in the modern world we understand that floods happen as a result of the forces of Nature that operate according to their own fixed rules.

Nevertheless, when a devastating flood occurs and we happen to be reading about The Flood (of Biblical proportions, you might say) in the same week, it is still unsettling.

But I also thought of Noah and the Flood when I read about the UN Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change which also came out this week. Because that report predicts that flooding will become much worse in the coming decades unless we make significant changes in how we live, and very soon. But before I mention what the Intergovernmental Report says, here are some quotations from three earlier reports.

  1. “The responsibility of the Department of Defense is the security of our country. That requires thinking ahead and planning for a wide range of contingencies.

“Among the future trends that will impact our national security is climate change. Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.

“In our defense strategy, we refer to climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ because it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today – from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these impacts.”

[Dept. of Defense, 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Road Map, Forward. (The forward is signed by the then Secretary of Defense, Charles Hagel. Although Hagel was appointed by President Obama, he was formerly a Republican Senator representing Nebraska.)]

  1. “Economic growth should be accompanied by global efforts to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations associated with this growth, containing them at a level that prevents dangerous human interference with the global climate. Our overall objective is to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions relative to the size of our economy, cutting such emissions per unit of economic activity by 18 percent over the next 10 years, by the year 2012.”

[National Security Strategy of America, September 2002, p. 20. (This report was produced by the George W. Bush Administration and signed by the President himself.)]

  1. “The impacts of the long-term trends toward a warming climate, more air pollution, biodiversity loss, and water scarcity are likely to fuel economic and social discontent – and possibly upheaval – through 2018.
  • “The past 115 years have been the warmest period in the history of modern civilization, and the past few years have been the warmest years on record. Extreme weather events in a warmer world have the potential for greater impacts and can compound with other drivers to raise the risk of humanitarian disasters, conflict, water and food shortages, population migration, labor shortfalls, price shocks, and power outages. Research has not identified indicators of tipping points in climate-linked earth systems, suggesting a possibility of abrupt climate change.
  • “Worsening air pollution from forest burning, agricultural waste incineration, urbanization, and rapid industrialization—with increasing public awareness—might drive protests against authorities, such as those recently in China, India, and Iran.
  • “Accelerating biodiversity and species loss—driven by pollution, warming, unsustainable fishing, and acidifying oceans—will jeopardize vital ecosystems that support critical human systems. Recent estimates suggest that the current extinction rate is 100 to 1,000 times the natural extinction rate.
  • “Water scarcity, compounded by gaps in cooperative management agreements for nearly half of the world’s international river basins, and new unilateral dam development are likely to heighten tension between countries.”

[Daniel R. Coats, Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, Feb. 13, 2018, pp. 16-17 (Mr. Coates is the current Director of National Intelligence in the Trump Administration. He is also a former Republican Senator from Indiana.)]

My point this morning is that Global Warming is not a partisan issue. It is not a made up fantasy of half-baked scientific research. It is, in fact, a very real threat that our own military and national security and intelligence community takes very seriously.

So, as I mentioned earlier, this past week a United Nations scientific panel of experts issued yet another report that summarized the latest and best scientific research and analysis on climate change, and the report was pretty scary. The New York Times said the report “describes a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040 – a period well within the lifetime of much of the global population.” And it “says that avoiding the damage requires transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that has ‘no documented historic precedent.’”[i]

So, what are we to do about this? Well, we can allow our elected officials to lie to us, and pretend that climate change is just an elaborate hoax, as if we were children who can’t handle being told a fearful truth. We can bury our heads in the sand like ostriches and pretend it’s not true because we cannot see it with our own eyes.

But the number of powerful storms that we ourselves have experienced in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Coast over the past few years (like Hurricane Michael this past week) should be a wakeup call. We should read these reports from our own scientists, and our own military and intelligence strategists, and allow ourselves to see the truth of what they are trying to tell us. Even if they are only partially correct in their predictions, the future is going to be fraught with peril if we do not begin to take action now.

So, first of all, we need to demand of our elected officials that they not treat us like children. We need to demand that they take seriously these well-researched, and well-reasoned reports. There are things that only our government can do. Fortunately, many of them can actually be a great boon to the American economy.

If we invest in the technologies that will reduce carbon emission of fossil fuel plants. If we invest in the technologies of cleaner, renewable fuels like wind and solar power and nuclear fusion. If we invest in the technologies to actually pull carbon out of the atmosphere – there are such technologies now available, we only need to ramp them up to industrial scale. If we invest in processes to reduce … how can I say this politely … cow exhaust fumes. Really. Apparently, cows are a major source of methane gas emission and methane is one of the most serious green-house gasses. The livestock industry “is estimated to account for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions globally.”[ii] But scientists are actually looking into ways to reduce cow “exhaust”.

All of these technologies will be in tremendous demand all over the world. We can be at the forefront of producing these technological advances, and thereby create jobs and a strong economy in each of these growing industries.

We also need governments to plant more trees – for city parks and recreation areas as well as state and national parks.[iii]

Second, in addition to encouraging our governments to do more, there are things we can do ourselves as consumers. We can choose to eat less beef, reducing the number of cows that must be raised in the first place.

We can choose means of transportation that are more fuel efficient. We can carpool more often or use public transportation, or even bicycles. We can fly less frequently.

We can install solar panels on our roofs. Build more insulated homes. Turn our thermostats up a degree or two in summer, using less air conditioning, and down a degree or two in winter, using less gas to heat our homes. Use LED lights that require much less energy.

We can bring our own coffee mugs and our own metal straws when we go out so we use less paper and plastic.

And generally, we can consume less, thereby requiring less energy to produce the “stuff” that we buy. A side advantage of consuming less is that we can save more for retirement.

Will all of these efforts of government and consumer be sufficient to save the future of our children and grandchildren? I am a religious person. I believe that God has endowed humanity with sufficient intelligence and insight to solve many of the world’s problems – if we choose to do so. We certainly have in the past.

At the turn of the 20th century many scientists had come to the conclusion that the world would soon run out of food. The planet would not be capable of growing sufficient crops to feed humanity within a very short time. The reason? Because the earth was being depleted of nitrogen. And nitrogen was essential in order to grow any vegetation. But before disaster struck, a German scientist named Fritz Haber discovered a way to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere and force it into the ground again. It could be done on an industrial level. And because of that new technology we are all alive today.

We can do it again. We can invent the necessary technologies to reduce carbon emissions and we can invent the technologies to extract carbon from the atmosphere reducing the greenhouse gas effects.

BUT, it will take time. And time is of the essence. That is why it is up to each one of us now to do our part in slowing down – as much as we can – the rising levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. It will buy us the necessary time to implement the new technologies that are already being developed. And we can – and must – encourage our governments to support the necessary research and development of these new technologies. The free market – with its emphasis on immediate profits – is simply inadequate to do it alone.

When America finally entered World War II, we had to swiftly ramp up our industries to produce huge numbers of tanks, war planes, aircraft carriers and other military equipment. But we did it in a miraculously short period of time. We planted Victory Gardens. We recycled scrap metal and rubber. We engaged in a whole array of conservation initiatives,  economic initiatives, volunteer and civil defense initiatives to support the war effort. We can do it again. If we have the will and determination to do so. Perhaps we should think of this as a World War against climate change.

In this morning’s Torah portion, God promises Noah that God will not destroy the Earth again, as God did during the Great Flood. The Rainbow is a symbol of God’s promise not to destroy the world. We still have the rainbow.

But God did not promise that God would prevent us from destroying the world ourselves through our own willful ignorance, burying our heads in the sand when we ought to know better.

Rather, God charged humanity – from the time of Adam and Eve – with being the caretakers of the planet, to “tend the garden” and keep it healthy and full of life.

Will we now let God, our Creator down?

The Talmud tells a story [Ta’anit 23a] about Honi the Circle Maker, that he saw an old man planting a carob tree. He asked the man how long it would take the tree to grow old enough to bear fruit. The man replied, “It will take 70 years for the tree to bring forth fruit.” So Honi asked the man, “Do you expect to live 70 more years to see the fruit?” The man replied, “I live in a world with mature carob trees that others planted long ago so that I might enjoy the fruit. So, I am now planting trees for my grandchildren to enjoy.”

Will we let our grandchildren down?

This is a call to arms. Who is with me? We can do this. We must do this.

As a Houstonian, I am proud to quote the motto of NASA: Failure is not an option.

[i] Coral Davenport, “Major Climate Report Shows Strong Risk of Crisis as Early as 2040, New York Times, October 7, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/07/climate/ipcc-climate-report-2040.html

 

[ii] Eliza Mackintosh, What the New Report on Climate Change Expects from You” CNN, October 8, 2018

[iii] Katie Reilly, “Here’s What Humanity Must Do Immediately to Prevent Catastrophic Climate Change, According to the New U.N. Report,” Time, October 10, 2018, http://time.com/5418577/what-humanity-do-limit-climate-change/

“Scientists recommend that up to about 3 million square miles of pasture and up to 1.9 million square miles of non-pasture agricultural land be converted into up to 2.7 million square miles for energy crops, which can be used to make biofuels. That would amount to land a little less than the size of Australia.

The report also recommends adding 3.9 million square miles of forests by 2050, relative to 2010 — which is roughly the size of Canada.”

About the Author
Rabbi Morgen is an Associate Rabbi of Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, TX. He has served on the Boards of the Houston Jewish Federation, and the local boards of the AJC, and the ADL. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He graduated from UCLA School of Law and practiced law in Los Angeles. He was ordained by JTS in 1998.
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