Archive for the ‘Jewish Climate Initiatve’ Category

By Dr. Michael Kagan

In the opening verses of the Creation story we read about the daily work load of the Almighty as She creates everything from nothing.    A true birthing process requiring a lot of rest at the end.  Each period of creative burst concludes with the well known phrase “And it was evening and it was morning the nth epoch (lit.: day)” where n is an integral number from 1-6.  The actual count-up reads: day one, second day, third day, fourth day, fifth day, THE sixth day.  And the question is asked: why the use of the definitive article for the last creative push?  The answer that Rashi brings from midrash is that THE sixth day is a reference to a particular six day namely THE six day of Sivan – Shavuot.  The idea being that the process of creation actually finally concluded with the giving of the Torah on Sinai.

I like to think of it slightly differently.

Shavuot is the bridge back to the time of the Garden, to the time that animals were not killed for their meat or skins; to the time that relationships in all directions were straight forward, true, and gentle; to a time when the Earth was freely gave of her fruit and humans planted and sowed with care and respect; to a time of greater innocence and joy.

How does this play out on Shavuot?

Traditionally the festival is particular in that it is a milk festival with an emphasis on cheese cake.  On Shavuot the synagogues are decorated with greenery. These are both reminders of the Garden.  We stay up all night trying to remember the original knowledge (Torah) that we forgot so long ago. And we read the Book of Ruth.

The Book of Ruth? What has this slim volume got to do with the bridge across forever?  The Book of Ruth has within it every (or almost every) relationship that we are likely to have in our lives.  Look for them yourself. Between the rich and the poor; the insiders and the outsiders; parents and children; in-laws and out-laws; land owners and serfs; managers and workers; lovers and loved; friends and family; life and death; past, present and future; old and young; between nature and humans; humans and God; and finally to the hint of the Healing (Mashiach ben David) that will repair the Great Damage.

And one more piece to hold this bridge in place – Shavuot means Weeks referring to the counting of seven weeks from Pesach to now.  This is the period of the Omer in which we count seven times seven plus one Shavuot being on the fiftieth.  Eight is the number for beyond, beyond the bounds of normal life where we can reach back to the beginning and reach forwards to the end, in which the end is in the beginning and the beginning is in the end – the Great Spiral of Life ∞.
Hence Shavuot – the Festival of the Great Giving – is the quintessential Green Festival.

Wishing you all a wonder-filled Shavuot.


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By Yannai Kranzler

When I first sat with Dr. Michael Kagan and Rabbi Julian Sinclair and listened to their plans to create a Jewish Climate Initiative, I immediately got excited about a scientist and a Rabbi joining forces to confront climate change. When I mentioned my excitement, Rabbi Sinclair smiled and said “Michael’s not just a scientist, you know.” And Dr. Kagan added, “Julian’s not really just a Rabbi, you know.” And so I did my research and learned that it wasn’t a scientist and a Rabbi confronting climate change, but a scientist/inventor/spiritual guide/mystic and a Rabbi/economist/writer/tour guide. And I realized that the Jewish Climate Initiative was going to be something special.

Dr. Michael Kagan

Dr. Michael Kagan: Co-Founder, Jewish Climate Initiative

In the following interview, Dr. Kagan explains the reasons for a Jewish Climate Initiative (JCI), expands on the directions where he hopes the initiative will go, and discusses how his life’s work of understanding the connections between apparently separate facets of the world stands behind the creation of the Jewish Climate Initiative, and is the spirit which drives it forward.

YK: Spiritual Leader, biochemist, inventor- you’ve done quite a lot in your life. How has your experience brought you to this point, where you are creating a Jewish Climate Initiative?

MK: The subject of my doctorate thesis was “Patent Formation in Dissipative Systems.” I know that sounds esoteric but it basically addresses the question, “Where does structure come from in the universe?”

I focused on thermodynamics and the question of entropy: Entropy means that everything is constantly descending to the lowest common denominator. If everything is descending into chaos, then, why do we exist? How come I have a body with fingers and arms and head? Where does order come from?

As I explored this narrow, specific subject in chemistry, I was led to such wide areas of investigation- biology, physics, philosophy, the history of science, how it connected to religion and thought and consciousness. And what I learned and experienced was the interconnectiveness between all things.

I also learned that I have a particular mindset – I think in a very eclectic and associative manner that sees the connection between things that seem to be vastly separate. This is even the heart of my inventive work: putting together techonologies nobody thought to put together before.

Jewish Climate Initiative
is the same thing. Our logo depicts three spheres- Ethics, Science/Technology and Activism/Policy or Nature, Man, and God or, more Kabbalistically, Form (din), Flow (hesed) and the synthesis that leads to Beauty (Tiferet). The interconnectiveness between the three – the nexus or overlapping of the three and the play between them is what excites me.

YK: What problem or need are you answering in creating the Jewish Climate Initiative?

MK: Our religion has deep wisdom that can be applied to the crises of today. Our ancient myths state that Torah is a blueprint for Creation. Therefore, we, as protectors of Torah and investigators of Torah need to investigate and unpack what the Torah says about the present crisis. I feel, as a conscious Jew, that it is incumbent upon me to ask the questions, and look for answers. We are part of the whole, with a responsibility to the whole, and this is for the whole.

YK: How do you see JCI as answering that need? What separates JCI from other environmental organizations?

MK: One thing is we’re not an envronmental organization. It was a friend of mine who taught me that what we face is not an environmental problem, but an ecological one.

Ecology means “The logic of the house”- Knowledge of the house. As in, I can ask you: “In your house- how are you recycling? Do you turn off electricy? What foods do you eat? How are your houses built?” That’s environmentalism.

But I ask- “How is the love in your house? How are the relationships in your house? How are you educating your children?” Ecology is a question of what type of home you have, not how do you run your house. Not that environmentalism is bad, but it asks different questions. JCI is an ecological organization looking at muslim-jewsfundamental questions about our relationship with the home, home being the earth, from the Jewish perspective. What is our home? Are we apart from Nature? Are we a part of Nature? Are we stewards? Co-creators? And part of our initiative is to ask other religions what their perspective is, and to share with them our perspective.

There are plenty of organizations dealing with the How-to and that’s great. But I need to ask the basic questions and I believe that Torah has a lot to answer that is highly contemporary.

There is a book by Thom Hartman, called the Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, about how we’re using up the remaining ancient fuel created by the sun millions of years ago. My reading of Torah is that it too is ancient but is still living. It’s fresh, and hasn’t been fossilized. Torah is not fossil fuel – It’s an Or Ganuz- a hidden light, ready to be revealed now as living light. Much like the sun is ancient but the light we receive is new.

At Jewish Climate Initiative, we want to tap into ancient wisdom to help answer contemporary ethical problems. We want to explore the ethics that have brought on this mess, and to explore how we can get out of it.

YK: And how do you think can we get ourselves out of this mess?

MK: I’m an evolutionist. I think the world is evolving, and that consciousness is evolving. Even this present crisis is the evolution of human consciousness. Evolutionary development is not guaranteed. Our continuation is not guaranteed. We can end, but we don’t have to. Perhaps if I was a more believing Jew I would say that we’ll survive no matter what or that Mashiach will come. But I don’t read Torah like that.

I look at history in the following way: The present crisis is an opportunity to make a significant leap in the evolution of human consciousness, from a “Taker” culture, to a next level- a sharing culture, or a giving culture- a different way of relating to the world. Not about, “Take as much as you can and if you don’t have the luck or fortune to take, you’re just a Misken (Unfortunate).

I look at the principles of Shabbat, the heart of Judaism according to many sages. What do we learn from Shabbat? Number one, that it’s not our earth. Number two, We need to learn how to leave things alone- not entirely alone, but to know how to have boundaries: What is available for us? What is not? What is Mutar (permissable)? What is Assur (prohibited)? This principle of Leaving exists all the way through the Jewish narrative, the biblical story and is ensconced in Halakha.

YK: So is the purpose that we go back to leaving?

MK: No. There was a civilization before to ours, which we can call The Leavers: Nomads, hunter gatherers, who lived here 10,000 years ago and before. I don’t know if they were happy here but they were here. There was no building cities, urbanization, emassing huge wealth.

From what we know of Leaver society, they had more of a symbiotic or harmonius relationship with nature, we’ll call it Ancient Wisdom, of which very little remains today. This in our story is symbolized by the Garden of Eden.  We left; we were thrown out; we can never go back; we can only go forwards; but we are spiraling around with a new Eden somewhere around the bend.  The transition from leaver to taker is epitomized by the story of Cain and Abel, in which Cain, the agriculturalist, kills his leaver/hunter-gatherer brother, Abel. And the curse arises from the Earth.

But I think we as Jews carry the knowledge of the Leaver way of life through today’s Taker way of life in order to help initiate or seed what I call The Third Way.

In my doctorate studies I learned that when you push a dynamic system through a crisis, it either explodes, or transforms itself into a new level of structures, with their own laws and constructs. It’s amazing to actually see this happen in a physical system. You put it into crisis and it evolves into a new living structure. You cannot predict this structure beforehand. You just hope it won’t explode, and you just hope for a new, steady state, a new order.

I think that’s were we’re at. Ecologically, economically- there is a crisis happening, and there is either the possibility of exploding/imploding-  or moving to a new level of consciousness or structure.

YK: Practically speaking then, what projects can JCI engange in, so as to facilitate this new or “Third Way,” and prevent “Exploding?”

MK: Last Thursday I went to the Green Economy Conference in Tel Aviv. At a session devoted to investing in cleantech, I asked the panel of investors capitalizing on the success of the cleantech industry, if their investing in green technologies was normal, just another opportunity to make money, or if they were influenced by a moral imperative considering dangers that we are facing. The younger investors all answered that practically speaking, their investments were about money, and were the profits elsewhere, they’d look elsewhere. Only one more elderly investor answered with an emphatic “No!” He said that investing in cleantech must be charged with a greater vision than the immediate bottom line; that we owed it to our children and grandchildren to push these technologies forward, with a sense of humility and courage, with the profit motive taking a back seat.

And it’s true. Life just no longer is business as usual. We can’t go on developing science, developing technology, making money and investments and relying on that structure that worked so well, ignoring the implications of that structure on life on earth, human and not human. Money can no longer be separated from ethics.

It became so evident at this conference that for the most part, we are still in the old mindset, and are not seeing the bigger picture.

Therefore, at JCI we want to bring together groups that don’t usually talk to each other: scientists, technologists, economists, investors – and sages. We want to bring them together through writing, conferences, our website and our blog and other projects, to engage in an open and ongoing discussion on where we are, how did we get here – and where are we going.

Michael Kagan, Ph.D. has been an innovator and entrepreneur for 18 years. He has Co-founded 6 high-tech companies, holds a doctorate in chemistry from Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is an inventor with twelve registered patents. Michael has developed and widely taught holistic Judaism, integrating a mind/body/soul approach to spirituality. For more by Dr. Kagan, click here, or visit http://www.holistichaggadah.com/ to learn about Dr. Kagan’s original commentary on the Passover Haggadah.

For more on the Jewish Climate Initiative, please visit us at www.jewishclimateinitiative.org, or contact us.

For more interviews from Climate of Change, come and visit our interviews page.

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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 1

Suppose a polluting factory causes a generally non-fatal variety of cancer in its vicinity. Imagine too that the factory owners are sued, and end up paying full financial compensation to the victims for their suffering, medical bills and unemployment. Have they thereby cleared their moral obligation? We would tend to think not. There is something about causing people to contract cancer that money alone cannot put right.

Or suppose that a rare species of butterfly lives in a nature reserve and that visitors pay to come and see this natural wonder. What if toxic emissions cause the butterfly to become extinct? Then what if the emitters fully compensate the reserve owners for loss of revenue? Have they made good the extinction of the butterflies? It’s pretty clear that they haven’t. There’s a dimension of damage involved in destroying a unique species that is unquantifiable and cannot be made up for with money.

Policy discussions on global climate change, which has emerged as the most serious and urgent environmental threat, provide some striking examples of this issue. The Stern review was a major report commissioned by the UK government from Sir Nicholas Stern, Chief Economic Adviser to the Treasury, to assess the economic implications of climate change. It found that the global cost of unrestrained climate change in the 21st century would range between 5% and 20% of world GDP over the 21st century. Conversely, the Review estimated the cost of taking preventative action to mitigate the effects of climate change as 1% of global GDP over the same period. Stern proved that it is unequivocally cheaper to run the world than to wreck it.

This was welcome news to those who wish to see action on climate change. However, the basis of Stern’s calculations is complex and problematic. Stern himself acknowledges the immense difficulties in estimating global costs of climate change impacts where the uncertainties are great, the time scale is long and the distribution of effects is highly unequal.

Chapter 2 of the Stern Review is a fascinating exploration of how this task runs up against some of the key unresolved questions in economic theory. The Chapter goes on to describe and justify the positions which the Review decided to take on some of these issues.

To take three brief examples: firstly, the distribution of impacts from climate change is likely to be extremely unfair. The poorest countries in the world will suffer first and they will suffer most, both because they tended to be located in areas where weather changes will be most severe and which are already susceptible to droughts and floods, and because they have far fewer resources with which to take mitigating measures. Moreover a given dollar reduction in consumption for the rich is clearly far less serious for their well-being than the same loss would be for the poor. This runs into the well-know problem in welfare economics of aggregating social preferences. Stern takes the enlightened view that the welfare of the world’s poorest, many of whom are currently on the verge of subsistence, should be given greater weight in the calculation.

Secondly assessing the long term impacts requires welfare comparisons of present with future generations. The worst effects of climate change will strike in the life time of our children and grandchildren. Mainstream economic theory makes an assumption of “pure time preference;” that rational, maximizing individuals would rather have a given utility today than the same utility tomorrow, next year or next century. This is the main principle that underlies the discounting of future wellbeing against the present by around 5% per year. Applying that discount rate to the effects of climate change would imply that impacts due to occur in fifty years are of negligible significance in present day decision making. The “pure time preference” assumption was severely criticized by some of the twentieth century’s leading economists. Stern rejects the assumption as immoral and gives the same weight to the wellbeing of future generations as to our own.

Thirdly, the assessment requires finding ways to incorporate radical uncertainty. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) whose findings are the scientific basis for the Stern Review estimates that average global temperatures will rise by somewhere between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees centigrade over the 21st century. These figures span a range from the unpleasant but manageable to the unimaginably catastrophic. Outcomes towards the top end of that estimate would be way outside anything humans have ever experienced on Earth. This makes it very difficult to know what the real impacts of such a huge rise in temperatures would be and so to attach costs to those consequences. Here Stern invokes a distinction made by J.M.Keynes between risk and uncertainty. Risk is a measure of the uncertainty in decision making about the future in a case where we can assign probabilities and hence expected values to the different possible outcomes. Uncertainty is the corresponding situation in which it is impossible to estimate probabilities and expected values. Based on recent theoretical work extending Keynes distinction by the French economist Claude Henry, Stern posits plausibly that decision makers are “uncertainty averse”. They will give greater weight in their deliberations to the worst foreseeable consequences even if precisely because of uncertainty, expected values cannot be placed on those outcomes.

Stern recognizes where his project bumps up against the limits of economic theory. He sees the serious problems involved in assigning monetary values to consequences that are unknowable and in comparing damages that are incommensurable. Yet, despite his understanding of the complexities and his humane instincts in addressing them, in the end he lumps together all of the costs into one monetary sum. The 5-20% figure includes economically quantifiable costs such as physical damage to property, together with estimated dollar costs for the destruction of eco-systems and human communities, death from hunger, thirst and disease. All these are combined in a figure that he calls “equivalent to a reduction in consumption.”

Whatever its advantages in presenting Stern’s findings to policy-makers, this reduction of non-monetary costs to cold numbers is ethically problematic. What if the calculations had come out differently? Would Stern then have proved that it is economically worthwhile to destroy a certain number of lives and ecosystems rather than to invest a lot of money in technologies that would help us avoid dangerous climate change? And does he mean to imply that death and destruction of irreplaceable species and ecosystems could, after the fact, be adequately compensated by money? Both conclusions would seem to miss an important distinction between monetary and non-monetary damage.

George Monbiot, a British political journalist, makes the same point. He wonders what exactly the British Department of Transport means when it suggests that the aviation industry should pay the (climate change) external costs its activities impose on society at large.

“This is an interesting proposal, but unfortunately, the department does not explain how it could be arranged. Should a steward be sacrificed every time someone in Ethiopia dies of hunger? As Bangladesh goes under water, will the government demand the drowning of a commensurate number of airline executives? The idea is strangely attractive. But the only suggestion it makes is that aviation fuel might be taxed.”

Monbiot humorously but incisively points out that while money is the main means we have of compensating for environmental damage, we often feel that it is wholly inadequate.

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In memory of the late George Carlin, we’d like to present to you his take on environmental protection and, “Saving the Planet.” We’ll offer our take at the end, too. Enjoy!

(If you can’t see the video player, click here)

Absurdities aside, Mr. Carlin makes some important points:

1. Environmentalists have often inspired people to worry, not to change. Those who aren’t worried find it hard to take them seriously.

We need to acknowledge potential crises without clouding them in doom. Awareness is a good thing! The chance to live better is even better!

2. Carlin’s right- “The planet’s not going anywhere. We are.” (If we don’t make some big changes.)

As my wife’s ecology professor likes to say, when we’re gone, “The roaches will still be here,” as will many of their friends. Our fight to control climate change, desertization, water-shortages, etc. are essentially fights for our survival.

Environmentalists biggest mistake was to identify the cause as saving something called “the environment.” When they did that, they made it external to us. By calling eco-crises “of the environment,” they were placed in a class with trees and bees, whales and snails. I’m a backpacker and love mountains and trees- and bees and snails. But the ecological challenges we face today are of a very different nature than protecting Nature.

3.. Plastic is one of earth’s children.

Okay, that part’s not true. Probably not, at least.

We have a powerful role in earth’s ecosystem, and we can choose whether we want that role to be one of nurturing life or abuse and destruction.

Choose life!

A big thanks to Mr. Carlin. Rest in peace and good humor old man!

By Yannai Kranzler

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“For the Jewish community to make a difference on environmental issues, we need brutal honesty to begin with. Jews are now roughly 0.2% of the world’s population; less than the margin of error on the Indian census. If all the Jews in the world recycle their newspapers it will make… pretty much no difference whatsoever. Nor if we put a solar-powered ner tamid in every synagogue, nor, more radically, if every Jew in the world swapped their existing car for a hybrid.”

-Nigel Savage, founder of Hazon. Click here for the full article.

“Our home planet Earth is undergoing rapid and sustained destruction of its eco-systems… Muslims comprise at least one fifth of the human community and they can contribute much to the thinking that is vital to re-evaluate the future direction of the human community and save its home for itself and other life forms.”

– The Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES)

What a difference one fifth of the world could make!

And us Jews? We sure are a little nation, but as history tells us, we have tremendous power to inspire ethical behavior, mobilize social change and spearhead the technology with which to bring that change about.

If our species is to control the ecological crises that we face today, then we’d best focus where we each can help, and filter out where we cannot.

I recently led a session at Green Up Your Campus, a program of Derech Hateva/Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel for gap-year students in Israel beginning college next year, on Sustainability’s “Three R’s,” Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

To introduce the discussion, each member of the group was to list one area of “green” living that they did not want to incorporate into their personal lives, or something they’d much rather not give up in the name of fixing the world.

I spoke about loving new books. The smell, their look on home’s bookshelf, the crispness of new book covers. One girl mentioned long showers. Someone else said he could never give up on driving.

And then we began to analyze: If I really love new books, maybe I can lend them to someone who doesn’t. Perhaps even to the guy who loves driving. And he can give me rides, because I don’t care that much about driving. The long showers girl can be ultra-conservative with water when she washes dishes. Or she can engage in something of a Kyoto Protocol on Hygiene- trading “Shower-water” credits with friends.

Common sense might imply that the more we negate our “Footprint” on the world the better off the world will be. But “Ecology” tells us about ecosystems-relationships between species, many to most of which we are a part. And as any good relationship goes, all sides must contribute of themselves- of what makes them individual- in order for the whole to thrive.

At Jewish Climate Initiative (JCI), we are working to develop the Jewish voice- to channel our collective passion and individual ingenuities to impact our fellow humans, to view our climate of change as an opportunity that begs us to live in a conscious harmony with the universe, its creations and resources.

We invite you to visit us at www.jewishclimateinitiative.org and learn more. The whole climate change thing is pretty terrifying- but we’re an optimistic People, and do not believe we’re given challenges we cannot handle. And if we tackle this one creatively and with a hopeful spirit, it is going to a have a happy ending, and many proud and better people to show for it.

By Yannai Kranzler

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We were there, in the Negev Desert on Thursday afternoon, June 12th 2008, when Luz 2
inaugurated its first solar energy generating plant.

Two of the JCI team, Michael Kagan and David Miron Wapner had a hand in setting up the company two years ago ago, so it was a proud day for them. For me it was somewhere between science fiction and biblical prophecy.

Luz2 has figured out how to produce solar energy more efficiently and cheaply than anyone else. The technology is dazzling. (Sorry!) In a tract of the Negev near Dimona, 1641 heliostats, 7 metre square mirrors, are geometrically arrayed around a 60 Metre high tower. Perched on the tower is a 15 meter tall boiler, containing densely packed silvered pipes. The mirrors are programmed to track the movements of the blazing desert sun so as to concentrate reflected sunlight precisely on designated spots on the boiler surface. This solar targeted energy heats water in the pipes to temperatures of over 500 C, generating steam that drives turbines that produces electricity. If you want a fuller description than my rudimentary science can provide, see Luz2’s site.

Inside the hospitality marquee we ate canapes on square plates and saw videotaped messages from venture capitalists, investment banks and customers who are backing the project. The Pacific Gas and Electicity Company has just signed a deal with Luz for a generating plant in the Mojave desert that will be the biggest solar energy source in the world, roughly 50 times bigger than the baby in the Negev. The company’s vision is huge. They aim to build hundreds of these things all around the world over the coming twelve years, producing electricity that can compete with and eventually undercut coal and gas powered plants. This is technology that can produce affordable, efficient solar power, and lots of it. It offers hope that we can switch to renewable sources of energy and avert dangerous climate change in the coming decades.

Arnold Goldman, Luz’s visionary founder observed in his speech that the site of the plant is called “Rotem”, a type of bush in Hebrew. Goldman remarked that “siach” the general name for a bush means conversation, and that the intense conversations that led to the development of this technology in a certain sense inhered in the physical plant of the mirrors and boiler themselves. In a remarkable book, “Moving Jewish Thought to the Centre of Modern Science”, Goldman develops a Kabbalistic theory of language and explains how it underlies the work of Luz. His comments about the Rotem bush were the only hints at such thinking that Goldman gave to this corporate audience.

After the speeches, the public address system played “Here comes the Sun”, by the Beatles. I thought of the Biblical verse, …”to you who fear my Name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing on its wings.” (Malachi 3:20.)

When I got home I told my technology-mad children where I’d been and what I’d seen. I suspect that one day I will be telling my grandchildren.

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We were proud to be featured in the special Green Issue of the Magazine that came out on April 20th. The whole issue is worth looking at as a survey of cutting edge stuff going on in the field of climate change. (See link at the bottom.) Here’s the piece:

For years, Rabbi Julian Sinclair led a double life. He kept his two identities — as a yeshiva-trained Jewish scholar and a self-described economist and policy wonk schooled at Oxford and Harvard — apart.

But the increasing portents of climate change convinced Sinclair that a religious response to what he calls “the biggest big-picture policy challenge we face today” is precisely what the world needs now.

“The environmental movement has been overwhelmingly secular for 40 years and has achieved amazing things,” he says, “but it hasn’t yet figured out how to move people on amassive scale because it isn’t telling the right story.’ Sinclair says he believes that the “doom-laden apocalyptic narrative” favored by the mainstream environmental movement can paralyze rather than motivate necessary lifestyle adjustments. Conversely, he says religion — which has been “in the behavioral-change business for 3,000 years”— offers a distinct message of hope and boasts an impressive track record ofmoral persuasion: “There have been watershed moments when religion has barged into public life, blown away the windbaggery of politics-as-usual and declared with irresistible force, ‘This must change now!’ ”

Following the lead ofthe popular “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign from the Evangelical Environmental Network and Jewish sustainability organizations like Hazon(“Vision”), Sinclair helped found the Jewish Climate Initiative. He is also the author of the forthcoming book “The Green God,” in which he consults the world’s spiritual traditions for teachings about how humans can confront climate change.

Regarding his own religion, Sinclair says Judaism regularly expresses spirituality through “mundane deeds that awaken deeper consciousness.” “If going to the bathroom can be a religiously meaningful act (there’s a blessing said after doing so),then switching to C.F.L. light bulbs can be, too,” he says. Still, the economist in him urges first things first: “Shifts in consciousness can take decades that we don’t have. Trade in the S.U.V. — then let’s talk about the sacredness of the earth.” LEAH KOENIG New York Times Published: April 20, 2008http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/20/magazine/20Live-a-t.html?_r=2&pagewanted=3&sq=urban%20farming&st=nyt&scp=1&oref=slogin

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Researchers at the University of Chicago apparently think so.

See this fascinating report in the New York Times about Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s pioneering work applying behavioral psychology to climate change.

One of the things that interests us at Jewish Climate Initiative is the huge gap between knowing and doing in the climate change business. We all know what we’d have to do to drastically reduce our carbon footprints: fly much less, use public transport more, switch to CFL lightbulbs, buy a hybrid car, etc. etc.

But very few of us are doing it.

“This comes as no surprise to behavioral psychologists who have been studying the human penchant for making dumb choices,” writes the NYT.

The good news however is that we do have a strong inclination to do the right thing for the common good if we are given the right nudges and cues.

California utility companies experimented with including statistics about average electricity consumption on people’s electrical bills. This information led customers whose consumption was above average to use less in the next quarter. The problem was that people consuming less than average raised their electricity use. (After all, who wants to be a freier?)

Next time around, they added the following simple refinement to the electricity bills: a smiley face for people whose use was below the mean, and a frowning face for those above the average.

Amazingly, this caused people below the average to keep their consumption low, or reduce it still further.

The studies show that a communal norm together with positive reinforcement towards reaching that norm can have powerful impacts on behaviour, (although do I feel a bit queasy about the authors’ plan for introducing flashing lapel pins that indicate your carbon use.)

This should give pause to anyone who thinks that appealing to people’s pockets is the only way to reduce carbon footprints.

For anyone who believes, as we do, that religions have a potentially powerful role to play in combating climate change, these findings are encouraging, but not hugely surprising.

The Talmud already arrived at the same conclusions. I’ve just been studying the eighth chapter of Bava Kamma, which deals with a number of crucial environmental issues, including Ba’al Taschit, the prohibition against wanton destruction of property and resources, based on Deuteronomy 20: 19-21.

The chapter ends with a long discussion about the power of social norms to influence behaviour for good or ill, (Bava Kamma 92a-93a.) But it also stresses the pivotal power of determined and inspired individuals to reorient social norms by their example.

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The question sounds like the title for a Lunch and Learn session of the sort that I used to give when I was campus rabbi at Cambridge.

The usual format was that hungry students would come and wolf down smoked salmon bagels while I held forth for forty minutes on what Jewish tradition could say about some topic of contemporary interest.

At first sight, the answer to this Lunch and Learn title is “nothing.” There is no “parshat global warming” in the Torah. You’ll search in vain for “tractate climate change” in the Talmud.

But Jews have always been ingenious at applying the eternal wisdom of our tradition to the most pressing issues of every era, at hearing the commanding word of Torah that is addressed to today. What has such extrapolation yielded on the issue of climate change?

So far, almost nothing. If I were a Hillel Rabbi today, giving Lunch and Learn about climate change, I’d struggle to find forty minutes worth of teaching material based on what’s currently out there.

This is odd, seeing as climate change is emerging as the most urgent challenge that humanity faces. Our success in meeting this challenge will determine whether or not we leave a livable biosphere on planet Earth to our children and grandchildren.

Correct us if we’re wrong about this, (and we’d be delighted to discover that we are), but at Jewish Climate Initiative we’re not aware of any serious research that has been done so far to focus the spiritual depth and power of Jewish teaching on this issue.

This is the central challenge that Jewish Climate Initiative has set itself in its first year of operation: to articulate a coherent Jewish answer to this question; a response that’s deeply rooted in traditional Jewish sources, and fully engaged in the reality of contemporary science and policy.

We’ve made a small start in the Ethics section of our website. There we break the question down into several more manageable ones.

What can we say about intergenerational justice, about our role in leaving a habitable world to our descendants?

What can three Talmudic tractates on the subject of damages tell us about our responsibility for stopping and making good the damage we’re doing to our global neighbours through excessive CO2 emissions?

How can the cardinal Jewish principle of pikuah nefesh, saving life, galvanize us into doing something about a problem that could cost hundreds of millions of lives in the next century?

What can we say about a global ethic of consumption that is trashing the planet for the sake of today’s fleeting pleasure?

We’ve barely scratched the surface of these questions. In partnership with scholars, rabbis and teachers around the world we aim to access the wealth of Jewish teaching and develop some compelling answers.

Then we will have a body of wisdom that can serve not just as edu-tainment for Jewish students between lectures. We will have a basis from which we can articulate a Jewish message to the world that addresses humanity’s most pressing challenge

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Why a Jewish Climate Initiative? Surely climate change is a global problem? Isn’t everyone today concerned about it?

We spent quite a few late nights and Espressos debating these questions ourselves.

Our answer is that yes, many people are, and we applaud and support their efforts.

But the scale and urgency of the problem requires everyone to play their part. We have barely begun to imagine, let alone make, the immense shifts in individual behavior, government policy and ethical consciousness that will be necessary if we are to avoid dangerous climate change.

We believe that the Jewish people has a large, unique and until now, untapped contribution to make, through its combination of ethical wisdom, scientific and business know-how and activist passion.

Jewish Climate Initiative aims to be a catalyst to mobilize these strengths for the good of our children and of the planet.

Part of what makes our response distinctive lies in recognizing the holistic nature of the climate change crisis. The challenge of global warming requires a marriage of moral and spiritual vision with scientific and entrepreneurial innovation. Neither well-meaning ethical exhortations nor purely technical solutions will be sufficient by themselves.

One of the many things we believe faith-inspired approaches to climate change can offer is hope. Hope is a scarce resource in the current climate change discourse. Al Gore observes in “An Inconvenient Truth” that many have passed straight from denial that climate change is a problem to despair that we can do anything about it, without passing through an intermediate stage of hope.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that hope is a distinctively (though not exclusively) religious virtue. It is not the same as optimism. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that together we can make them better.

We hope that you’ll send us your thoughts, responses and suggestions so that together we can help make things better for our children and grandchildren.

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