NEW YORK, Jan. 22 (JTA) — In the beginning, God created the world. Today, as people who are to be a “light unto the nations,” Jews have a responsibility to help save that world by working to reverse global warming, the greatest problem facing our planet.
People are becoming increasingly concerned about global warming due to frequent reports about record heat, wildfires, extreme weather events such as Hurricane Katrina, droughts, melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, rising sea levels, flooding, endangered species and spreading diseases.
The hottest year in recorded American history was 2006 — the 10 hottest years have been in the last 12. In December 2006 alone it was reported that the inhabited Indian island of Lohachara had to be evacuated before it was submerged by rising waters, a massive ice shelf broke off from Canada and the U.S. moved to list polar bears as a threatened species.
There is clear scientific consensus that global warming is a rapidly worsening crisis, exacerbated by human activity. Ominously, some leading experts, including James Hansen of NASA and Al Gore, are warning that global warming could reach a disastrous tipping point unless major changes are made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — and soon. The Pentagon cites global warming as a larger threat than even terrorism.
Jews have additional cause for concern. While Jews traditionally have been committed to compassion, social justice and concern for the needy, the people most affected by global warming are the poor and socially disadvantaged, since they are in the weakest position to guard against environmental damages and likely will suffer the most harm.
Further, increased suffering and increasing numbers of environmental refugees, along with more anxiety over access to food, water, land and housing — the essentials of life — often lead to unstable conditions that may result in anger, ethnic violence, fascism and war. All too often they have been targeted at Jewish and other minority communities.
Every country, including Israel, is threatened by climate change. A 2000 Israeli government assessment indicated that global warming could cause a double whammy: an increase in the Mediterranean Sea level in the narrow coastal strip inhabited by 60 percent of Israelis and a decrease in rainfall. Land and water are vital yet scarce resources in this tiny country, yet both are threatened by global warming.
Major changes are necessary to return our imperiled planet to a sustainable path. Yes, we need our governments, corporations, schools and synagogues to become actively involved in fighting global warming.
Yes, the U.S. — the largest contributor to global warming — needs to join 169 others, including Israel, and ratify the Kyoto Protocol.
Yes, we need better fuel efficiency and to switch from fossil fuels to renewables; Israel is especially ripe for solar power. And yes, we also need to make personal changes.
A major 2006 study by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization shows how personal actions can affect climate change. “Livestock’s Long Shadow” reports that animal agriculture is a grossly inefficient consumer of fossil fuels and a major producer of greenhouse gases, responsible for 18 percent of human-caused global warming — more than all transportation combined.
When it comes to global warming, what we eat, the FAO study is telling us, is actually more important than what we drive. Therefore, the most important personal change we can make to fight global warming is to “go veg,” or at least significantly decrease our consumption of animal products.
More than 70 percent of major U.S. crops, and one-third worldwide, is diverted to feed 50 billion farmed animals. The FAO reports that the livestock industry uses 30 percent of the Earth’s land, thereby “entering into direct competition for scarce land, water and other natural resources.” Further, overuse of land by livestock, leading to overuse of fuel and water, also degrades the land and pollutes the water around it, causing additional environmental and health problems.
An animal-based diet is also energy inefficient. Grains require only 2 percent to 5 percent as much fossil fuel as beef. Reducing energy consumption is not only important for fighting climate change, it also reduces our dependence on foreign oil and the vagaries of both markets and dictators.
Mass production of meat contributes significantly to the emission of the three major gases associated with global warming: carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Changing from the standard American diet to a vegetarian or, even better, vegan diet does more to fight global warming than switching from a gas-guzzling Hummer to a Camry or from a Camry to a Prius. It has been said that “eating meat is like driving a huge SUV… a vegetarian diet is like driving a hybrid and… a vegan diet is like riding a bicycle.”
Moving away from SUVs, SUV lifestyles and SUV-style diets to energy-efficient, life-affirming alternatives is essential to fighting global warming.
Shifting toward vegetarianism is an easy and effective way to fight global warming with our forks. Such a dietary change is fully consistent with Judaism’s highest ideals. It would also demonstrate the relevance of Jewish values to current crises.
Global warming isn’t kosher. As Jews are to be partners with God in tikkun olam, healing and repairing the world, we need to start with ourselves. If not now, when?
(Dan Brook, the author of “Modern Revolution,” maintains the Web sites Eco-Eating at www.brook.com/veg and The Vegetarian Mitzvah at www.brook.com/jveg. Richard H. Schwartz, the author of “Judaism and Vegetarianism” and “Judaism and Global Survival,” is president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America.)