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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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