Don’t forget the Earth

NEW YORK, Jan. 24 (JTA) – 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 environment.

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.

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