Archive for August, 2008

By Yannai Kranzler

Democratic National Convention week opened with a first: An Interfaith gathering, hosted by Christian, Muslim and Jewish community leaders from around the the United States.

The gathering focused mostly on abortion and capital punishment, less on world poverty and Darfur genocide, and even less on climate change.

Why would the self-titled “Greenest convention in history,” hosted by a party so determined to move the climate crisis to the heart of political discourse, open with religious leaders all but ignoring climate change?

Obama himself has said that climate change needs to enter the focus of religious dialogue. “It is a responsibility to ensure that this planet remains clean and safe and livable for our children, and for all of God’s children,” he said.

Wouldn’t religious leaders representing his party agree?

What if the democrats’ interfaith gathering had chosen a different religious message- not that “We’re also a religiously responsible party”- but that “We are the only religiously responsible party?”

They could have pointed out Republican environmental and energy policies/lack of policies that have left us with a world in neglect- populations facing starvation, drought, desertization, the aftermath of Katrina and a reliance on fossil fuels that promises more war and economic instability. They could have mentioned ignoring Kyoto, disinformation campaigns on global warming, blood ties with petroleum-laden kingdoms and a lack of investment in renewable energy.

If we, as faith-communities claim it our job to care for the world, then we cannot support a platform that is so against the heart of what we stand for. Republicans can hold themselves on some distorted religious pedestal, praising themselves for saving otherwise aborted babies- but when millions of already born people stand threatened because of their policy of neglect, who cares?

John McCain might be different. I pray that he would be. And I hope that this week’s Republican convention will include religious leaders telling Republican politicians that the way they’ve been is just not okay.

As Obama himself says, we need our religious beliefs to effectively confront climate change. Belief gives us, to use an Obama-ism, the audacity to hope; to believe not only that we should be better, but that we can be better. Religion is not only about faith in God, but faith in man.

A focus on climate change could have provided fuel and inspiration to the greenest convention in history.

As religious people, we have been talking about stewardship in theory for thousands of years and it is time for us to step up. “Take care not to destroy my world,” God tells Adam (Ecclesiastes Rabba 7:28).  Well we risk a lot more right now than getting kicked out of some garden and it doesn’t look to me like we’ve got our eye on the ball.

Truth is though, that we’re religious people- We thrive on learning from mistakes. Our scriptures show History dabbling in ultimate disaster, but in the end promise peace. Jewish tradition claims that those who “Do better next time” are on a higher level than those that never did wrong at all.

So let’s do better next time.

Obama has repeatedly made religion an integral part of his campaign. Here’s his take on Religion and Climate Change:

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Greg Craven

Greg Craven

YouTube is incredible. The video below “How it all ends” is the updated version of one that received 1.5 million hits and helped net its creator, science teacher Greg Craven, a book deal with Penguin. Please God by all of us!

With rapid fire delivery, a funny hat and some simple high school science lab explosions, Craven makes one, simple point:

Even if there is doubt about the science of climate change (and the window for reasonable doubt about this has closed since Craven made his first video; the authoritative IPCC 2007 report calls the evidence for manmade climate change “unequivocal); we should still act.

Why? Because Climate change is life-threatening on a massive scale. Among the predicted effects over the 21st century are significantly more frequent and severe droughts and floods. These are events that, at their worst, can kill tens of millions. The costs of acting even if the scientific consensus is wrong about climate change are dwarfed by the costs of not acting if the consensus is right. Basic risk management. QED.

Here’s the video:

Jewish thinkers made the same point thousands of years ago. Saving life is a cardinal Jewish principle. The Torah teaches that humans were created, “in the image of God, (Genesis 1:26).” Each person partakes in the divine and is therefore of infinite value.

A famous Mishnah states:

“Therefore, man was created as an individual, to teach that if anyone destroys a life, it’s as if he has destroyed a whole world; and anyone who saves a single life, it’s as if he has saved a whole world.”

Each human being is likened to a whole world, of infinite value and irreplaceable uniqueness.

So the Torah requires us to take assiduous precautionary measures to prevent the needless loss of human life. The archetype for this requirement is the commandment to build a protective parapet around the roof of your house to prevent people from falling off and hurting themselves: “When you build a new house you shall make a parapet for the roof, and you shall not bring bloodguilt on your house.” (Deuteronomy 22:8).

In his authoritative code of halakhah, Maimonides generalizes from this mitzvah to other cases of potentially lethal danger:

“…so too for any case where there’s a danger that a person may unwittingly die from…there is a positive obligation to remove the danger and to be extremely careful about it…and if he neglects to do so and leaves impediments that can cause danger he has negated a positive commandment and violated “he shall not place blood guilt on his house.” (hilkhot rotzeakh, 11:4)
The Torah does not allow us to court danger and hope for the best. We cannot count on God to save us if we are stupid or negligent. The author of Sefer Hahinukh makes this clear in his explanation for the commandment to build a parapet around a roof:

“God created His world and based it on natural foundations. He made fire to burn and water to extinguish fire. So too, if a large stone falls on a person’s head, it will crush his brains and if he falls from the top of a high roof to the ground, he will die. The Merciful One,…breathed a living, intelligent soul into humans, so that they might save themselves from harm.”

It is not faith, but foolishness to dice with death and expect God to help. Divine mercy consists not in bailing us out of any danger that we bring upon ourselves, but in giving us the wit and wisdom needed to avoid the danger in the first place.

Today we call these “natural foundations” of the world scientific laws. If the best available scientific evidence shows that human actions are causing climate change that is likely to lead to massive loss of life, then the Torah clearly requires us to take whatever action we can to avert that threat. This is so, even if there is still a small measure of doubt about the science. Given the immense risks and dangers of delay, the precautionary principle derived from the mitzvah to build a parapet requires that we take action now.

For more on Climate Change Ethics and Jewish Thought, visit us at the Ethics Page of the Jewish Climate Initiative website. See you there!

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Last month Al Gore gave a rousing speech on climate change. He threw down an audacious challenge to the American people. By 2020, Gore declared, let America be powered 100% by renewable sources of energy.

Gore appealed to the Apollo Project as the model for an enterprise of such grandeur.

In 1961 President Kennedy announced his goal that America put a man on the moon within a decade. Kennedy’s challenge captured America’s imagination and galvanized the American computer, aeronautics and space industries. As wildly ambitious as the aim at first appeared, the United States reached it with 15 months to spare. Today, Gore announced, we need a new Apollo Mission for energy.

Here’s the video of the speech:

Painting a vision of this magnitude represented something of a departure for Al Gore in his thinking about how to move people on climate change. He has done more than anyone to raise awareness of the issue, but at first he appeared to think that simply laying out the inconvenient truth about global warming would be sufficient to mobilize action. When it didn’t, he started musing about the inconvenient evolution of the human fear gland that was designed to respond to immediate, emotional stimuli rather than cognitive and scientific input.

In his Apollo speech, Gore was adopting the approach of two renegade activists, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Their 2004 essay “The Death of Environmentalism” argued that environmentalism was too fear-based, too narrow and too policy wonky to ever make a real difference on climate change. The piece set off a firestorm of controversy in the green movement. After all as former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach observed, “nobody likes to be called dead, especially when they think they are still alive.”

Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility” is the updated book length version of Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s thesis. It’s an important book as it encapsulates a body of thinking that has done much to reorient the US environmental movement’s response to climate change, from Al Gore downwards.

In “Breakthrough,” Nordhaus and Shellenberger expand on their critique of classic environmentalism and broaden it into a new vision of progressive politics.

The starting point of their critique is that the doom-mongering discourse of climate change doesn’t work. It just paralyzes people. They quote the most quoted lines of their earlier essay:

“Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech is famous because it put forward an inspiring, positive vision that carried a critique of the current moment within it. Imagine how history would have turned out had King given an “I have a nightmare speech” instead.” (p.1)

Shellenberger and Nordhaus

Environmentalism has for forty years been giving “I have a nightmare” speeches. As the nightmares have become more lurid and terrifying, culminating in the four horseman of the apocalypse predictions on climate change, people have stopped listening.

Focusing on problems has been problematic for environmentalists for other reasons too, the authors claim. It has turned the movement into a special interest group concerned with its own particular category of problem objects, polluted water, air, endangered species etc, to the exclusion of other people’s problems, such as jobs, race, women’s rights etc. Furthermore it has led to environmentalists speaking a jargon of technical, legal and bureaucratic solutions to their problems (CAFÉ standards, cap and trade etc.) as if the American electorate was made up of “one hundred million policy wonks.”

Breakthrough argues that the way forward for environmentalism is to become part of a progressive politics that emphasizes possibilities rather than limits and that recounts an inspiring story rather than a litany of problems and grievances. It needs to recognize Americans aspirations for meaning and fulfillment.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger urge progressives to look across the chasm of the culture wars and learn from what those on the other side are doing right; the Republicans have been telling a story about American national greatness and moral strength that resonates across the income groups and Evangelicals such as Rev. Rick Warren have drawn tens of thousands to their mega-churches by preaching the spiritual greatness and uniqueness inherent in every person.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger exhort environmentalists and progressives to find a way to tap into these rich sources of inspirational and electoral power. In particular, they urge the left to unite around the New Apollo Project, a program for combating climate change that will invest $300 billion in renewable energy R and D. They estimate that the program will create 3 million jobs, undercutting the claim that environmental concern must come at the cost of trade union jobs and so helping to create a broad backing coalition. The Project is wrapped in an uplifting story of how American inventiveness, know how and get-up-and-go will once again come to the world’s rescue.

Some of Breakthrough’s points are spot on; about the enervating effect of doom and gloom, the fragmenting consequences of environmentalists’ focusing on things, and the key role of vision and values in mobilizing action on climate change. It’s a bracing read too, grappling with Fukuyama’s End of History thesis, Paul Berman’s elergy to the sixties generation, “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” John Dewey, and the American Transcendentalist tradition of Emerson and Thoreau, among other sparring partners.

The main weakness of the book is that the authors are fixated on the question “how are we going to get a Democrat into the White House and blue majority in both houses of Congress?” This leads them to discount potentially good solutions to climate change because they aren’t politically sexy. For example, they give Cap and Trade short shrift (p258) because it’s a problem based solution and “politicians who vote against such initiatives won’t pay a price at the next election.” In other words, it can’t easily be explained in a ten second sound bite. Nevertheless cap and trade is indispensable for leveling the energy playing field and bringing renewable sources on stream sooner.

The political slant of the book also leads the authors to reject any approach that might make Americans feel bad about their role in creating the world’s environmental crises. We are repeatedly told that Americans respond to a vision of aspiration and possibility far better than to the old environmental politics of limits and constraints. That may be empirically true, but maybe the fact that the United States, with 4% of the world’s population, has produced 30% of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere should prompt some soul searching about whether a few limits might indeed be in order. And if politicians can’t do the prompting, then perhaps someone else needs to. Religious leaders, for example.

In fact, anyone who has thought about the intersection of religion and ecology will be struck by the weirdly ambivalent relationship that Shellenberger and Nordhaus have to religion. They admire Evangelical churches for giving their congregants an overarching moral framework, and a strong sense of esteem and belonging and wish that there were liberal institutions that could do the same in a way that wasn’t as patriarchal and reactionary as they find the Evangelicals to be. But the authors are unconvincing about where the progressive counterparts to such values might come from.

At the end of “Death of Environmentalism,” Shellenberger and Nordhaus wrote:

“Environmentalists need to tap into the creative worlds of myth-making, even religion, not to better sell narrow and technical policy proposals but rather to figure out who we are and who we need to be.”

In Breakthrough, they do not repeat this call for a turn to religion as a source for ecological thought. The story of American greatness has become the aspirational myth that can inspire the fight against climate change. But it was a Puritan pastor, John Winthrop who first sketched the vision of the “Shining City on the Hill”, and the “I have a Dream” speech was drenched with biblical references. Will a secularized version of this narrative, built around clean tech investment, have the mythical power to move America to act on climate change? Or will a deeper and even more resonant story be needed, say of the earth as the God’s wondrous Creation that we are bidden to cherish and love?

“Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the politics of Possibility.” Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Houghton and Mifflin 2007.

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By Yannai Kranzler

I recently shared a car ride with Moshe, a factory logistics manager in Israel.

When I mentioned my work at Jewish Climate Initiative, his response was, “Sounds like quite the bit of nonsense.”

“New environmental standards make enormous demands of factories,” he explained. “We, as factory workers, have then to spend tremendous resources that we don’t have, to change modes of production and waste disposal and alter completely the way we have always done our jobs.

“For us, it’s more profitable to sell our factories, and move business to China where they won’t enforce the same standards. And there goes your fight against climate change.”

Moshe, mind you, does not come from an oil company, or the type of factory that has pocket cash enough to rig up a renewable energy system, or offset carbon footprints by reforesting Brazil. He likes the world and believes in science. His children work for Israel’s National Parks Authority.

I’d bet that most factory managers would love to run an environmentally sensitive show if only they could afford it.

To me, this is important. I’m a pretty white bred kid- my dad’s a doctor, my mom ran a music and art school. I studied social sciences in college, and learned Jewish ideals in Yeshiva. Because of my education and my skillset- not because of my morals or ideals- my carbon footprint is limited to a personal computer, a car and a home. I might spend a few bucks on different light bulbs, keep air in my tires, get healthy riding a bike. Maybe I’ll buy a hybrid. But I will never be asked to make the same sacrifices as Moshe.

And when I think of that, it becomes very obvious to me why I’m so gung-ho about taking action against climate change- and Moshe is not.

Ironically enough, it’s the Moshe’s that policy makers fight for, when they advocate for solutions like a carbon tax and cap and trade, including the creating of a global post-Kyoto carbon-capping protocol, to prevent everyone from shipping out to China.

Shapers of these policies and their advocates understand that in order to be effective, paying for climate change must be fair, with policies that reflect a level playing field. Only then will people like Moshe have support and incentives to make changes without losing out in the market.

At Jewish Climate Initiative, we like to say that our vision for the future must match the magnitude of the challenge of climate change.

Such a vision includes understanding everyone’s needs, appreciating- not discrediting or forgeting about, complaints such as Moshe’s.

To learn more about Carbon Tax and Cap and Trade systems, visit our Climate Change Policy page. And be sure to check out the Policy Programs page to read about what we, as the Jewish People, can offer climate policy discourse.

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On the 9th of Av, By Michael Kagan


The Beit HaMikdash was the heart of the Jewish people, the heart of Jewish ritual, the heart of Judaism.

At the heart of the Mikdash was the Holy of Holies – the point where Heaven and Earth joined, where the Divine Presence was most immanent, from whence the source of Divine Compassion flowed.

With the destruction of the physical Mikdash, the spiritual Mikdash became hidden. On Tisha B’Av we grieve for this loss.

With hiddenness came exile – exile from the Land, exile from Nature, exile from the source of our vitality, exile from our bodies. On Tisha B’Av we grieve for these losses.

And what is true for the Cosmos, is true for the People. And what is true for the People, is true for you and me.

On Tisha B’Av we grieve for our own hidden heart – for losing heart. We grieve for all the losses in our lives that have caused the flow of compassion to be restricted; for the distance between ourselves and the World, between ourselves and the Divine, between ourselves and ourselves.

On Tisha B’Av we grieve for all loss.

On Tisha B’Av we can penetrate the hiddenness, go through the pain, and reconnect with the Heart, with hope and with joy.

On Tisha B’Av we can touch our own redemption, our own Mashiach. And what is true for you and me, is true for the People, and what is true for the People, is true for the Cosmos.

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We were happy to have a piece in the recent special issue of Shma Magazine on Judaism and environment. Enjoy the article below- and check out the edition’s other pieces by a number of leading voices in the field.

(Reprinted with permission from http://shma.com/june_08/halakhak_climate.htm)

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Is halakhah a useful tool for addressing climate change?

If it is, then what might climate-change halakhah look like?

Halakah defines and articulates crucial Jewish priorities in a way that influences even Jews who are not halakhically observant; it is the medium through which Jews have traditionally expressed and lived their central norms and values.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is actualized in halakhot about visiting the sick and comforting mourners. Tzedakah, establishing righteousness and justice in our community, is precisely codified by Maimonides and the Shulkhan Arukh. If a majority of American Jews affirms today that a commitment to “social justice” as the cornerstone of their Jewish identity, then that is arguably because of the indelible imprint that hilkhot tzedakah has made on Jewish life over the centuries.

When we turn to the popular commentaries on reducing carbon footprints, we notice they look an awful lot like Jewish law. Open any tabloid newspaper and you will find lists of 10, 20 or 50 detailed ways in which you can modify your daily behavior to help save the planet; walk to the shops rather than drive, take a cloth bag for your groceries, don’t buy produce grown more than 50 miles from your home.

The language of halakhah is unusually well-attuned to the challenge of shifting individual behavior that climate change poses. The minute specificity of these recommendations is only matched in my experience by halakhic sources. Climate change policy shares with halakhic Judaism a recognition that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Raising awareness is all very well, but redemption requires precisely defined action.

Where, then, should we look to find halakhic models that can be applied to the problem? One obvious place to start is ba’al taschit, the prohibition on wanton destruction of property and resources. One could construct a plausible halakhic case for enjoining the turning off of lights, switching to CFL bulbs, and driving a smaller car based on the principle that it is wantonly destructive to use more resources than are necessary to achieve given human purpose. I hope halakhists will begin to do so. However, ba’al taschit is already well-known as a cornerstone of Jewish environmental ethics.

Let me suggest another model:

Hilkhot Shekhenim explores the diverse ways in which neighbors damage one another through their domestic and economic activities and the redress that is available in each case. This body of law balances the legitimate rights of people to do what they want with and on their own property against the rights of their neighbors not to be seriously damaged or inconvenienced by those activities.

It is a principle of Jewish pollution law that there are certain kinds of damage for which a presumptive right to commit them (hazakah) can never be established. Among the damages in this category is pollution caused by smoke. There is some argument among the commentators about whether the smoke needs to be of large quantity and/or of constant duration. Greenhouse gases that cause climate change would appear to meet both criteria.

Of course, these laws were developed to address conflicts between neighbors separated by a garden fence. The rabbis did not imagine our situation in which coal-fired power stations in Michigan may contribute to drought in Mali. Can these sources be extrapolated to damage caused on a global scale and through complex mechanisms of causation by greenhouse gas emissions?

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, probably the greatest 20th-century halakhist, takes a major step toward translating the laws of damages between neighbors into an industrial context.

About smoking in a large public place he writes: “And even though one person smoking in a large room such as a beit midrash would not by himself cause damage, nevertheless, since each smoker knows that many other people are smoking, he knows that his smoke is causing damage” (Igerot Moshe, Hoshen Mishpat, 2:18).

R. Feinstein here disallows the argument of each individual smoker’s relative insignificance in the big picture. Since each smoker knows that he is a small part of a larger phenomenon that cumulatively is inflicting serious harm on others, he must take responsibility for his role in contributing to that damage.

Although we must assume a quantitative leap in transferring this principle to climate change, it does not require a qualitative one. Once we know beyond reasonable doubt that our actions are part of a mass phenomenon that is causing immense harm, it becomes our moral responsibility to change our actions so that we stop being part of the problem.

How are you and/or your community confronting climate change? Halakha thrives on the discussions surrounding it- let’s do the same with climate change.
Here’s our list at Jewish Climate Initiative. Send us your comments and suggestions!

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

What sort of damages are environmental damages? What sort of restitution is necessary to put them right? This is a foundational question for environmental theory and practice. We will argue that Talmudic thought provides a very useful set of tools and concepts for thinking about the question.

The main means of compensation for environmental damage is money. Yet we instinctively feel that monetary compensation, though necessary, is not always sufficient.

Part 2: (For Part 1, Click Here)

Perek Ha’hovel

Chapter Eight of Tractate Bava Kamma, Ha’hovel, deals with physical damages against the person. The central dilemma in the chapter is whether restitution for physical damage to people can be adequately expressed in monetary terms.

It is clear from the Mishnah that physical damage must be compensated with money. One who assaults his fellow is liable to pay five categories of compensation: physical damage, pain, medical expenses, unemployment and shame.

But our chapter is also concerned to articulate the difficulties, incongruities and failures involved in paying monetary compensation for physical damage. It opens with a discussion of whether monetary damage or capital punishment is the more appropriate paradigm for considering physical damage, continues by elucidating the problems of placing a price tag on a human limb, or on such irreducibly subjective experiences as pain and humiliation. The chapter concludes by specifying what an assailant must do to make restitution for his damage, even after he has made all of the requisite monetary payments.  

The Talmud apparently wishes to impress upon us that although financial compensation is a necessary act of reparation for a physical attack, it is in no way sufficient. There are social, psychological and spiritual consequences of the assault that money cannot make good.  The German word for reparations, wiedergutmachen is, to the gemara, a misnomer. Monetary payment must be made, but it does not “make good again.”9 Full reparation must also take place at a very different level.

This chapter should be of particular interest to anyone interested in Jewish environmental ethics, because it contains the longest Talmud discussion of Ba’al Taschit. Many writers on the subject have identified Ba’al Taschit,the prohibition on wanton destruction of property or natural resources, as a particularly promising source of Jewish environmental wisdom.  Others have expressed a certain disappointment with ba’al taschit as a source of usable environmental teaching, arguing that it is too human-centered a criterion. 

We consider the discussion of ba’al taschit in its context of Perek Ha’hovel. Examining why ba’al tashchit is placed in this chapter of Bava Kamma, and how it partakes in the chapter’s central problematic will give us a renewed understanding of the usefulness and potential relevance of the concept for environmentalists.

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