Rising to the Spiritual Challenge: Meeting the Test of Climate Change

Climate change is not irrelevant to Jewish life; rather we risk making Jewish life irrelevant if we ignore it.

Sign making at Hazon Philadelphia for the People's Climate March, Sept.2014; photo courtesy.
Sign making at Hazon Philadelphia for the People’s Climate March, Sept. 2014; photo courtesy.

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 14 – Sustainability and Jewish Peoplehood – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Mirele B. Goldsmith

Climate change is the biggest challenge to sustainability that the world has ever faced, but many Jewish leaders have barely taken notice.

I realized just how far we have to go when I attended a meeting just a few weeks after Hurricane Sandy devastated New York City. The topic was how to address trauma caused by the storm, which killed 117 people in the United States and left tens of thousands homeless. After the formal presentations were completed, the chairperson opened the floor for questions from the audience. A woman stood up and, in a voice full of emotion, asked the panel to address how the Jewish community would be taking action to prevent climate change, which, if left unchecked, would likely contribute to future disasters.

The chairperson dismissed the question as irrelevant to the subject of the meeting.

This Jewish leader could not have been more wrong. Climate change is not irrelevant to Jewish life; rather we risk making Jewish life irrelevant if we ignore it. Like every other community on earth, we are in physical danger. But even more importantly, the climate crisis is a spiritual test Jewish communities must pass.

By now, the physical dangers are well known. Hurricane Sandy was a sneak preview of the future in which climate change will continue to alter the weather. Higher temperatures are already loading storms with extra energy and rising seas mean more flooding from storm surges. Heat waves that are occurring every summer are less dramatic than hurricanes, but still deadly. Studies suggest that, if current emissions hold steady, excess heat-related deaths in the U.S. could climb from an average of about 700 each year currently, to between 3,000 and 5,000 per year by 2050 (CDC). Jews are at risk as individuals and, as we learned in New York, the infrastructure of Jewish life – synagogues, Jewish community centers, and old-age homes – are vulnerable. In other parts of the world, including the Middle East, the dangers are even greater. In areas experiencing increased drought, people are forced to migrate as their livelihoods disappear. Violence and conflict are destabilizing governments. Changes in the climate are making many chronic problems worse, including hunger and disease.

Jewish communities would be wise to prepare for these physical risks, but it is even more critical that we rise to the spiritual challenge. At its heart, the climate crisis is a moral problem. People in the rich countries of the world, where most Jews live, caused the warming of the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels for energy. Cheap energy made industrialization possible, and brought us tremendous benefits in material abundance, healthier and longer lives, and even educational and cultural opportunity. And now, as the bill is coming due, we have the means to protect ourselves from many of the effects of climate change. But the poorest of the poor around the world, who had no part in causing the problem and have not benefited from industrialization, do not have the means to escape the danger. As Jews we know that we have a responsibility to recognize the harm we have caused and to do our utmost to make it right.

As Hillel taught, the essence of Torah is to love your neighbor as yourself. Loving our neighbors who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate disruption means doing everything we can to support a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Jewish communities can educate members to make their homes more energy efficient, purchase electricity from renewable energy suppliers, and stop investing in fossil fuel corporations. Even more important is to use our votes and our collective influence to persuade governments to enact ambitious policies to address climate change. This includes domestic policies to favor renewable energy, as well as support for a strong international agreement that will place binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions, offer financial support for the most effected nations, and provide a voice in climate deliberations for the most vulnerable.

Jews may disagree about the application of Jewish ethical teachings to various problems, but all streams of Judaism hold fast to a few key moral principles; that life is sacred, that every person has dignity and value, and that it is our human task to contribute to the redemption of the world. There is a purpose to Jewish life that goes beyond pursuit of our self-interest as individuals and even as a collective.

The climate crisis is a spiritual test. Jewish communities have everything we need to pass it. The only question is will we try?

Dr. Mirele B. Goldsmith is an environmental psychologist, educator and activist.