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Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Environment’

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

What does this amusing video clip have to do with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year? Read on…

Teshuvah, the innate ability we have to change our lives for the better is one of Judaism’s most central beliefs. We are not slaves to our pasts but can shake ourselves free of old, bad habits and remake our lives as we, in our best moments, and God, all the time, would really like them to be. Rosh Hashanah is the time of the year when we look at our lives from the perspective of those moments.

It takes a mental and moral leap for most of us to see our carbon footprints, the personal contribution that we make to global climate change, as something that calls for Teshuvah. Yelling at the kids, ignoring your spouse, kicking beggars in the street; these are all things that we can clearly recognize as wrong. We understand that they require reflection, regret and a determined effort to change. But everyday behaviour…? Driving, flying, buying food shipped from around the world…that’s just normal Western living. Can these actions fall within the purview of such an exalted ethical concept?

Yes, they can.  There is an egregious and outrageous moral wrong about the way that carbon-hungry lifestyle’s in rich countries are already contributing to drought, hunger and extreme weather conditions in the world’s poorest nations. We just don’t see the silent, odorless web of interconnectedness that links cause and effect.

It is this fact of interconnectedness that can make the challenge of climate change feel so overwhelming and disorienting. The demonstrable phenomena  that a coal-fired power station in Michigan can contribute to starvation in Mali, or that the car I choose to buy in Boston may be somehow implicated in floods in Bangladesh (or, for that matter, tornados in Texas,) fundamentally challenge our views of how moral agency and responsibility work.

We intuitively understand the solid-bodies physics of how an SUV, if driven without care, can flatten pedestrians. Knowing this, we are generally careful to make sure not to do so. The atmospheric physics of how careless driving of a different kind can contribute to flattening somebody’s mud hut in the Maldives is beyond most of our scientific ken and so outside our frames of conceptual and moral reference. After all, very few people would knowingly and deliberately drive their SUV into a mud hut. And if we did so by accident, most of us would certainly say sorry, and offer to pay.

In Judaism, individual responsibility is the fundamental unit of social change. Teshuvah starts with me and you, (as my friend Jess Gold in England points out.)  “Great is Teshuvah, because through a single person repenting, the whole world may be forgiven,” says the Talmud (Yoma 86b). This is the redemptive flip side of interconnectedness; the deep, sincere transformation of one person can change everything.

The most common reason for individual inaction on climate change is that the problem is too huge; it will take governments, laws and lots of money to solve.  This argument doesn’t wash in Judaism. Certainly; the problem will require governments, laws and lots of money. But governments are our agents, not our alibis. They won’t make far-reaching policy changes that will require us to alter our lifestyles until they see that we are ready to change and are not going to throw them out of power for requiring us to do so. As the Rambam says: “A person should always see himself and the whole world as equally balanced between merit and guilt…; if he does a single mitzva he can tip himself and everyone over to the side of merit and save the world.”  (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:4)

In this connection we at JCI have been working on a carbon-offsetting guide. (Should be out right after Rosh Hashanah.) As you may know, here’s how offsetting works:

First, calculate the quantity of carbon you emit by flying, driving or using electricity. Second, pay for a

carbon calculator

project that reduces carbon emissions by this same amount. These might include generating electricity from solar, wind and hydroelectric sources instead of fossil fuels, or reducing fuel use by increasing efficiency. Since greenhouse gases circulate freely in the atmosphere, this project can be located anywhere in the world.

There is a fundamental critique made against offsetting; that it is simply unethical. Critics argue that we need to radically reduce our carbon emissions; offsetting your flight to Australia will, at best, neutralize the extra carbon you spewed into the atmosphere whereas what is required is to produce less of the stuff. Some have compared offsets to a child shifting her spinach to the other side of the plate and pretending that consequently there is less of it.

Underlying this is the idea that if some act or behavior is wrong, paying to do it won’t make it right. The spoof website http://www.cheatneutral.com (see video above) makes this point in a funny but sharp way. You can’t offset marital infidelity by paying someone to be faithful on your behalf. So too, if living a high carbon life-style is immoral then buying offsets doesn’t make it OK.

This critique can be supported by Jewish sources. Somebody who physically damages another person is required to pay five categories of damages; damage, pain, loss of earnings, medical expenses, and embarrassment. (Bava Kamma 83b) Does this mean that if you beat someone up and then pay all the expenses that the court asks of you you’ve made everything alright? No. Beating people up is wrong. You’re not allowed to do it even if you fully intend to pay damages afterwards. Money alone cannot make it right. (Bava Kamma 91b, Maimomides, Hilkhot Hovel u’mazik, 5:1).

Nevertheless, Jewish Climate Initiative is in favor of offsetting. (We’re producing a handy guide, to come out next week.) Here’s why.

1. It’s much, much better than doing nothing. As long as we continue to fly, drive big cars, etc. offsetting mitigates some of the effects.

2. The kind of people who offset are usually the kind of people who are also trying to shrink their carbon footprints. They are offsetting in addition to reducing emissions, not instead of it.

3. It gives a boost to ecologically friendly projects, communities and technologies, which has positive knock-on effects.

4. Offsetting through the projects in our guide supports green initiatives in Israel.

5. Judaism recognizes that change takes time. The process of transforming one’s life, Teshuvah does not happen all at once, but one step at a time (People who do become deeply observant overnight often revert to their former life-style just as quickly.)

The world is entering a process of Teshuvah,  positive and profound, transformation, in the way we all use energy; it needs to happen pretty darn fast, say within a decade or two, but still it will take time. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, in his work “Orot Hateshuvah advised Baalei Teshuvah, to acknowledge the things they don’t yet have the power to fix in their lives, and pray for the ability to repair them in the future. Offsetting is one way to repair a little of the damage we still do to the earth and its most vulnerable citizens in our everyday use of fossil fuels, even as we all work towards a new energy culture that is in harmony and not at odds with the planet.

Climate of Change and JCI wish you and yours a happy, healthy and blessed New Year.

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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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