Straight Talk on Energy

Published February 09, 2007, issue of February 09, 2007.
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A showdown is poised to erupt over energy and environment policy later this month in Washington, when a council of the nation’s most influential Jewish advocacy organizations convenes for its annual policy plenum. As our Jennifer Siegel reports on Page 1, divisions have emerged during the drafting of the council’s proposed energy resolution, pitting those Jewish groups that give top priority to American energy independence against those that favor the most urgent measures to protect the environment and slow greenhouse-gas emissions.

A similar debate is playing out in Congress, where a half-dozen competing bills are vying for lawmakers’ attention. The proposed strategies include, in various combinations, introduction of mandatory emission caps, encouragement of alternative fuel sources, a new push for nuclear energy and speedier production of homegrown oil and coal.

The Jewish organizations, seeing a significant role for themselves in the congressional battle, are trying to settle — or paper over — their differences before this month’s meeting of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, so that they can hit the Hill with some unity. But that would be a mistake. The differences between positions are too pointed and the issues at stake too great for the debate to be stifled now. The time will come for Congress to make hard decisions. When it does, the representatives of the Jewish community will be given a respectful hearing, as they usually are on issues of great concern. It’s only fair that the members of the Jewish public be given an opportunity in advance to understand what our leaders and lobbyists are getting us into this time. Now is the time to take the debate public and bring it out to the communities.

At its core, the current energy debate revolves around the basic question of which crisis should be considered more immediately threatening: global jihad and the spread of violent Islamist extremism, or global warming and catastrophic climate change? If the answer is jihad, then America must do everything it can to reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern oil imports, including speeding up extraction of domestic oil and coal to replace the imports and so ensure our freedom of action in the region. If the answer is climate change, then increased use of coal and other domestic greenhouse fuels is precisely the wrong answer. If human life as we know it is facing cataclysmic threats to its survival within the next few centuries, then everything else becomes small stuff.

Looming over both approaches, moreover, is the question of nuclear power, which offers quick answers to both crises but introduces new, potentially catastrophic threats of its own.

While America debates the relative weights of these various imperatives, the Jewish community has some imperatives of its own to sort out. Many in our community, particularly the most active and devoted among us, will look at the choices posed here and call them a no-brainer. The environment, they will say, has billions of people to worry about it. Our duty as Jews is to help ensure the survival of the Jewish state in the Middle East, and that means strengthening America’s hand there and reducing the influence of oil. That seems, according to early indications, to be the direction favored by some of the wealthiest and most influential Jewish organizations. Defenders of the environment and global-warming activists are fighting a rear-guard battle.

As it happens, two major new scientific studies were released in the past week that could shed some important light on the debate. One is the first report of the United Nations scientific panel, issued in Paris on February 2, that declared human-induced global warming to be “unequivocal” and called for immediate worldwide steps to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, if the worst is to be avoided. The report, signed by 113 nations including the United States, may finally shift public discussion of the environmental crisis, moving it to the top of the agenda. Other problems can impoverish and embitter human life. Global warming, if left unchecked, will end it.

The other watershed study is the Jewish population report issued this week by the Steinhardt Institute at Brandeis University. The product of extensive crosschecking among dozens of existing surveys, it appears to show definitively that America’s Jewish population is far larger, and far less engaged in Jewish communal affairs, than previously recognized. A long time will pass before the report’s full implications are digested, but one conclusion can be suggested at once: that the major Jewish organizations are even less representative of mainstream Jewish thinking in America than we had imagined. A great deal of reflecting, listening and outreach is required before Jewish organizations will be able to march into Washington and present the views of the Jewish community with any real confidence and credibility.

Caution is particularly called for on matters where our community’s representatives might be thinking of calling for American actions that defy world opinion and the American public, whether it’s waging a Middle East war or saving the planet. If they’re going to expose their constituents to the possible blowback of such lobbying, they ought to say so in advance. Before we act, let’s talk.






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