Protecting Creation: A Jewish Response to Climate Change

— Dan Segal, chair of Jewish Community Relations Council, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, Rear Adm. David W. Titley, Dr. Jalone L. White-Newsome and Dan Segal.

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, Rear Adm. David W. Titley, Dr. Jalone L. White-Newsome and Dan Segal.

Climate change is one of the gravest issues facing our nation and our planet. As I write, over 150 world leaders are meeting in Paris at the UN sponsored Climate Summit which hopefully will address many of the dangers brought on by excessive production of greenhouse gas emissions.

Earth’s average temperature has risen by 1.5°F over the past century, a dramatic increase compared to the last 1000 years, and is projected to rise another 0.5 to 8.6°F over the next hundred years. Small changes in the average temperature of the planet can translate to large and potentially dangerous shifts in climate and weather.

Many places have seen changes in rainfall, resulting in more floods, droughts, or intense rain, as well as more frequent and severe heat waves. The planet’s oceans and glaciers have also experienced some big changes – oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, ice caps are melting, and sea levels are rising. As these and other changes become more pronounced in the coming decades, they will likely present challenges to our society and our environment.

Our reliance on fossil fuels comes with a host of dilemmas beyond its effect on the weather. We must be sensitized to the grave national security concerns created as nations become destabilized over lack of natural resources such as water. Solutions to climate change have an uneven effect on poor nations who are far less able to cope with the damaging effects of climate change than are wealthy nations and yet are being asked to help resolve a problem many of them feel they did not help create.

And yet day after day we flip our light switches, boot up our computers, and drive our cars. What should we do? While we cannot remove ourselves from the necessity of using energy, we have a moral obligation to alleviate the proliferation of greenhouse gasses as it will affect our lives on many levels.

Rear Admiral David W. Titley

Rear Admiral David W. Titley

Most scientists agree on what needs to be done, yet there is still doubt among many world leaders that we have the political will to carry through on what the scientists propose. Indeed the politicization of the topic in our country, in which far too many refuse to even admit to the existence of the problem threaten to divide our nation and put our planet further at risk.

As U.N Secretary General Ban Ki Moon told leaders as the UN talks in Paris began last week, “The future of your people, the future of the people of the world, is in your hands. We cannot afford indecision, half measures, or merely gradual approaches. Our goal must be transformation.”

Although international commitments and legislation in Washington are critical in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and increasing energy independence, our challenge at the local level, is not to wait passively for policymakers to make their next moves. Policy makers need to hear from all of you. We need to bring our communal, institutional and personal strengths to bear now.

Lynne Iser asks participants to pair off to discuss climate change.

Lynne Iser asks participants to pair off to discuss climate change.

It is for this very reason that JCRC decided to convene a Protecting Creation Forum for our Jewish community to help us understand the relationship between energy, security and the environment and our moral obligation particularly as Jews. Not that there aren’t many wonderful organizations already deeply involved in the issue of climate change, many of whom are co-sponsoring this program. But because of the critical nature of climate change, we at JCRC felt the need to bring the various groups together so that collectively, we could face this issue as a community. Our goal is for you to take what you learn here today back to your organizations and synagogues.

Climate Change Advocacy 101 for Jews

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, Rear Adm. David W. Titley, Dr. Jalone L. White-Newsome and Dan Segal.

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, Rear Adm. David W. Titley, Dr. Jalone L. White-Newsome and Dan Segal.

Often a failure in communication is not the message or the messenger, but how it is presented. I am not talking about a Madison Avenue campaign to convince people to buy something they don’t need, but an understanding of the audience.

Yesterday, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council held a conference Protecting Creation: A Jewish Response to Climate Change. The speakers were clear and articulate representatives of their professional realm:

  • Rabbi Nina Cardin from the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network;
  • the Rear Admiral David Titley, retired from the United States Navy and currently Senior Scientist and Director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State;
  • Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome, of WE ACT for Environmental Justice; and
  • Dan Segal, Chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

I learned that since 2010, Philadelphia has experienced: its snowiest winter, its two warmest summers; its two wettest years; two hurricanes; and derecho (a widespread, long-lived, straight-line wind storm that is associated with a land-based, fast-moving group of severe thunderstorms. Derechos can cause hurricane force winds, tornadoes, heavy rains, and flash floods.) I learned that Pennsylvania is one of the dirtiest states, producing more pollution than the country of Chile. And I learned that the fact that the ice caps in Antarctica are increasing is a testament to the warming conditions elsewhere, bringing more water to the Antarctic.

It can be overwhelming to think about a global problem, but we can start with a personal or household exercise in calculating our carbon footprint. We can promote community-based resiliency planning, because the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina has showed us that the most vulnerable were the elderly and handicapped who were without access to transportation out of their disaster area. So, a contact list of individuals who live alone or cannot drive in our neighborhood would result in faster response than relying on the National Guards.

Promoting our concerns for the environment means knowing how to speak to those who do not share our beliefs. It means advance preparation, so we are aware for example that a particular Congressional representative has a relative with asthma, which is exacerbated by air pollution. It means meeting our audience on their terms, incorporating their concerns.

Rabbi Shawn Zevit of Mishkan Shalom spoke from the audience about his inter-faith work, in which his fellow clergy face difficulty talking about climate change when their parishioners are facing unemployment and eviction from their homes. It is easily dismissed as a problem of white privilege. The Sierra Club found that by reaching out to disparate niche populations, they were effective in integrating their cause. They now work with veteran groups, a particularly effective ally in capturing the attention of Congress.

Rear Admiral David W. Titley

Rear Admiral David W. Titley

A few years ago, I was given a platform from my synagogue for environmental issues. So, each week I was able to present one environmental fact to the kehillah through our shul bulletin. This was well received until the week I wrote about meat consumption being a major hazard to the health of our Earth. In the flurry and fury of complaints to the rabbi from meat lovers, I lost my forum. (Rear Admiral Titley said, “We will not convince people with the scientific facts, because scientists have tried for 30 years and failed.”) I learned yesterday that the way to influence my shul peers is not to bludgeon them with the facts, I have to re-frame my approach to make it a religious value, a mitzvah.

Let us brainstorm together on ways to create a cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable world for future generations. Time is running out, as the Arctic ice caps melt and coastal cities and island nations face flooding and contamination of their water tables (ruining their supply of drinking water). We all aspire to a good and meaningful life, we just have differences in how to meet our goals.