I was planning to write this week about some startling news regarding Jewish day schools, but an incident over Shabbat changed my plans. At dinner with friends, I was surprised to find that nearly everyone present saw President Obama as hostile toward Israel. Here was a liberal-leaning, Upper West Side crowd, yet most hoped for an electable Republican candidate.
It won’t surprise you that I disagree with that assessment of Obama. His most controversial views, like “based on the 1967 borders” and “get to the damn table,” are actually much closer to mainstream Israeli defense doctrine than Bibi Netanyahu’s positions. But that’s not what bothered me last Shabbat. After all, friends can disagree, and my friends raised some strong points.
No, the conversation unsettled me because it brought to mind a news story I’d read that morning about giant plumes of methane gas, some of them a half-mile wide, found entering the atmosphere through the melting Arctic ice cap. Let me explain.
Methane is between 20 and 70 times more powerful (depending on how you measure) than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. The release of the methane beneath the polar ice is a longtime climate scientists’ nightmare. Now that it’s happening, the global warming process enters a new phase, a feedback loop where the process feeds on itself, accelerating geometrically as one crisis begets another.
An article in The New York Times the next morning described a separate methane leak via the thawing of the permafrost, the frozen Arctic tundra just south of the polar sea ice. In other words, the warming of the Arctic is releasing methane through two different portals, the thawing tundra and the melting sea ice. The seriousness of the permafrost leak is uncertain. Not so the undersea methane. Either way, current estimates of how hot things will get and how soon are due for recalculation.
As it happened, a United Nations conference on the climate — the 17th in 20 years — had ended in Durban, South Africa, just five days earlier. Delegates called it a breakthrough. For the first time, developing countries like China and India have agreed to begin limiting their carbon emissions, even though it could slow the economic growth lifting them out of poverty. Up to now they’ve demanded that industrialized nations bear the brunt of curbing emissions, since the rich nations produced most of the carbon already in the atmosphere. Equally important, the conference voted to adopt some sort of legally binding system for ensuring all nations cut emissions. Nobody knows how it would work, but the thought is bracing.
The bad news: The Durban goals are barely adequate to avoid the catastrophe scientists see looming, and it’s unclear even these goals are politically feasible. All along, negotiations have foundered over the unwillingness of one nation, the United States, to take climate science seriously. Somehow, a nation that goes to go to war over Dick Cheney’s famous 1% chance of a terrorist threat won’t retrofit its power plants on a 90% chance we’re choking the planet.