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As new administration takes office, it's important not to forget the Earth
By Mark X. Jacobs
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
It would be wonderful to write a column simply about the traditions and joys
of Tu B'Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, celebrating the
magnificence of the trees that grace our earth and praising our Creator for
the delicious diversity of fruits trees provide.
But I cannot. For the very fruitfulness of creation that inspires the
celebration of Tu B'Shevat is endangered.
On Jan. 23, The Washington Post ran this headline: ``Scientists Issue Dire
Prediction On Warming: Faster Climate Shift Portends Global Calamity This
Century." These are frightening words, particularly in the context of a new
administration that has signaled that they do not support strong action to
address global warming.
The latest report of the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change predicts that Earth's average temperature could rise by as much as
10.4 degrees over the next 100 years — 60 percent higher than predicted less
than six years ago. This would be the most rapid temperature change in the
last 10,000 years. The warming is caused primarily by burning fossil fuels,
which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, trapping the warmth of the
sun like a blanket around the earth.
For the first time last summer, scientists observed open water, rather than
ice, at the North Pole. Insurance claims for storm damage grew exponentially
in the 1990s. West Nile virus is in New York and malaria is in Toronto. These
developments are consistent with predictions that sea levels will rise, polar
ice caps melt, tropical diseases migrate, whole species and ecosystems vanish
— and droughts, floods and severe storms increase.
As always, the poorest, most vulnerable people will be hurt the most,
particularly in the world's poorest nations, where little shields billions of
people from the direct effects of weather and climate.
Global warming on the scale now predicted will cause massive global
instability as the most basic features of our world change — the amount and
timing of rainfall, the range of temperature, the level of the sea. Parts of
the earth which have sustained populations for millennia will no longer be
able to do so, causing mass migration, ``ecological refugees," wars over
water and famine.
Consider: We are transforming the very nature of the fragile, delicate,
mysterious and awesome creation of which we are a part. Unintentional human
action is undermining the habitability of Earth. In our day. In this
generation. Through our daily actions.
This is the most severe crisis humankind faces, and perhaps has ever faced.
The way we produce most of our energy is undermining the very inhabitability
of earth as we know it. This is an energy crisis far beyond the scope
considered by most of our political leaders.
For how much of this crisis is the United States responsible? Twenty-five
percent — a full quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions — come from the
United States. Why? Gas-guzzling SUVs. Sprawl. Pervasive energy inefficiency
in our homes and businesses. A lack of concern for how much energy we use
because it is so very abundant (California's shortages notwithstanding) and
comparatively cheap (even with recent price spikes). Addressing the supply
and cost of energy is indeed vital to the economy — but pales in comparison
to the larger issue at stake.
Addressing the larger issue of global warming is a Jewish responsibility.
On the most basic level, our tradition teaches us that we humans were placed
in the Garden of Eden to till it and to tend it, to serve it and to protect
it (Genesis 2:15). ``The earth is the Eternal's,'' teaches the Psalmist. We
are tenants. And we are responsible for far more than taking care of our own
little plot of land. The ancient covenant of the Jewish people obliges us to
pursue justice in all of our relationships — with all people and all
creatures — as well as for future generations.
There are pragmatic Jewish reasons for concern as well. Jewish children will
live in the world we leave them. Israel is already pushing its ecological
limits (particularly the supply of fresh water), both internally and in
relationship to its neighbors. And global instability is likely to lead to
increased fundamentalism and even fascism, as the basic security of many
peoples around the earth is undermined.
The energy agenda of the new administration is to increase supply and keep
costs down. To drill for more oil and gas in remote and fragile environments,
such as Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
>From all indications, the Bush administration is not preparing to address the
more fundamental energy crisis of our time.
Unfortunately, protecting the environment has come to be considered a liberal
or Democratic issue. This has not been the case historically. Teddy Roosevelt
created the National Park system. Dwight Eisenhower created the Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge. And Richard Nixon created the Environmental
Protection Agency and signed into law the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and
Endangered Species Act. For most of the last century, protecting the
environment was a bipartisan issue in Washington.
In most of America, environmental protection still has bipartisan support.
Most Americans strongly and actively favor increased protection of our
By putting forward the shared values that underlie our concern for the
environment, framing environmental protection as the moral issue that it is,
and keeping attention focused on the deeper issues, we can bring people
together to address the grave ecological circumstances we face.
The good news is that there are numerous solutions to the problem of global
warming, as an increasing number of major businesses are discovering. This is
a problem we can address. But we must get started before it is too late to
reverse the trends.
As we gather to celebrate Tu B'Shevat, let us rejoice in the wonder of
creation and the beauty of the Jewish tradition. And let us find in the
wisdom of our tradition and the strength of our communities the purpose and
courage to fulfill our sacred task to preserve the Creator's magnificent
handiwork and pursue justice for all people and creatures.
Mark X. Jacobs is executive director of the Coalition on the Environment and
Jewish Life (COEJL), the organized American Jewish community's national
environmental effort embracing 29 national Jewish organizations and 12
regional affiliates across North America. For more Jewish perspectives on
environmental issues and how you can take action, see www.coejl.org.
© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced
without written permission.
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