The news from the United Nations on climate change is as daunting as it is depressing. The question is what can we, as individuals and as a community, do about it?
The report’s key finding is that human activity has already raised the planet temperature by 1.1 degree Celsius — the reason for this summer’s intense wildfires, floods, perhaps even the die-off of gray whales — and that the planet could warm by 2, 3 or even 4 degrees Celsius, with even more catastrophic effects, over the next two to three decades.
The (barely) good news is that cutting greenhouse gas emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere can avert the otherwise inevitable planet-wide disaster. In other words, there’s hope, and where there is hope, there is a reason to act.
Jewish organizations and leaders, with some notable exceptions, have not made climate change action their focus. The tendency is to focus on issues that are more immediate or more emotional, like antisemitism, Israel advocacy or Jewish continuity.
But now we are faced with a report telling us that in order to survive on this planet, period, we must stall, and hopefully reverse, climate change. Otherwise, we face the very real option of eradicating antisemitism by killing off humanity as we know it.
If we as humans get climate change wrong, it will make very little difference what we as Jews get right.
Many climate experts warn that the time in which individual action can make a difference has long passed, and that only institutional and governmental change can make any meaningful difference. As a community that accounts for just 2 of every 1,000 people on Earth, it’s hard to feel like even universal action by Jews can have real impact. Still, our tradition calls for tikkun olam — for each of us, individually and collectively, to do what we can to repair our broken world. Here are five ways to start.
1. Take climate change as seriously as antisemitism.
Climate change “has to go on the agenda of every single Jewish institution,” Nigel Savage, the founder of the Jewish environmental group Hazon wrote in response to news of the U.N. report. That means Federations, synagogues, the whole alphabet soup of Jewish nonprofits, need to define and enact a response as thoroughly as they did in recent years in addressing antisemitism. “A deeply serious public commitment, not to finishing the task, but to starting it as a central and systemic endeavor – that’s what we need,” Savage wrote, invoking a classic line from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers.
Some Federations, like Baltimore’s Associated, have acted on and invested in these issues (and, by the way, galvanized young people in doing so). Others are far behind. Savage and his successor at Hazon, Jakir Manela, are calling for “a community-wide seven-year commitment to environmental sustainability across the entire Jewish community” by the fall of 2022.
Rabbis have an opportunity during the upcoming High Holidays to spur their congregants to individual and collective action. Boring? Not Jewish enough? Listen to how Rabbi David Wolpe Sinai Temple in Los Angeles spoke about it on Kol Nidre in 2019. “If you can’t imagine the bad that would happen,” he said, “then you could never imagine the good you can do to repair it.”
3. Act Alone.
The individual choices we make for sustainable living matter — what we eat, what we drive, how we power our homes, businesses and institutions. And: where we invest our money. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to dump your kids’ college fund into coal, oil or Big Ag stocks whose actions ensure there won’t be a livable future for your kids beyond college. “Many people have funds invested either for their children’s college or for retirement and can make choices about where these monies are invested,” Rabbi Melanie Aron of Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, California points out.
As for what you eat, keeping kosher just isn’t enough. In 2008, Scientific America actually crunched the numbers on whether the diet of those who observe the laws of kashrut produces more or less greenhouse gases. The bottom line is that America’s 10 million kosher consumers (not all of them Jewish) represent a marginal slice of the market.
But to the extent personal choices matter, eating a pound of beef, whose production releases 13.67 pounds of greenhouse gases, is far worse for the planet than eating, say, a pound of wild salmon, which releases less than .23 pounds. Eating a mostly plant-based diet with sustainably raised or harvested animal proteins is a start, though as food writer Mark Bittman warns in “Animal Vegetable Junk,” we are past the point where personal choice alone will forestall disaster. What if individuals not only made better personal choices but did so as part of a communal effort, multiplying the effect? If your Jewish institution or doesn’t have a plan to offer sustainably-grown food—and cut back on food waste— now’s the time. Joelle Novey, of Interfaith Power & Light, has many suggestions for concrete congregational actions here.
4. Support faux meat.
The world needs solutions to climate change that can scale quickly, far faster than individual diets. This month, an Israeli start-up, Aleph Farms, announced it will increase production of its cellular meat to 5,000 burgers a day, an astonishing volume. Aleph is the leading company worldwide for creating meat by growing cells from otherwise living animals. The meat looks and tastes like meat because it is. There are other Israeli companies at the cutting edge of faux meat production, including Redefine Meat, that are poised to satisfy the world’s growing craving for juicy protein while all but eliminating meat production— which the UN report cited as a major contributor to global warming.
5. Use our leverage.
Only governments and corporations have the capacity to launch the sweeping policies and practices that will forestall climate change. That’s why a Jewish community that has generations of expertise in leveraging its power to influence legislation and policy changes needs to take climate change on as a cause.
“Individual efforts do not address the structural dynamics that fuel climate change,” write Anne Weisberg and Rachel Landsberg, “unregulated emissions by large corporations, an aging electric grid and an economy predicated on the unsustainable extraction of natural resources from the planet.”
Only two major Jewish groups, Hazon and Dayenu, have made this their focus — they need far more support. Dayenu’s nationwide Hear the Call this month will go to each senatorial and congressional field offices and sound the shofar in support of climate action. “This may be our last, best shot to ensure a livable future for our children, and our children’s children,” writes Dayenu founder Rabbi Jennie Rosenn—and the UN report makes clear she is not exaggerating.
If your thing is lobbying for Israel, read this sobering assessment of the environmental and social disaster that awaits Israel in the face of global warming. Israel’s primary foe is unseen, and at its gates.
It is at all our gates.
Five things Jews can do to stop climate change