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Of Climate and Copenhagen: Now, the Jewish Response

December 3, 2009 By:
Mike Weilbacher
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Illustration by Donna Grethen

Last week, President Barack Obama dragged America kicking and screaming across a critical threshold, committing us to a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas levels by 2020. Forget for a moment that this is not an effective enough response; forget also what Congress might do to that number. Rather, let's rejoice that we have a leader who is stepping up to this monstrously important issue.

While Obama has been accused of dithering on issues like Afghanistan, the truth is that we all have been dithering on the issue of climate change for 20 years, so many Neros fiddling while the world burns -- literally.

Obama's announcement allows him to fully participate in next week's U.N.-sponsored Copenhagen climate talks -- the follow-up to the disappointing 1997 Kyoto accord, which much of the world, save us, signed on to. The United States can walk in, put a plan on the table and challenge climate tigers like India to ante up.

In America, there is no consensus on climate change; we are all over the place. At one end of the spectrum, activist Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, is lobbying for candlelight vigils on Friday, Dec. 11, to remind us that Copenhagen will not go far enough.

At the other end, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) is bringing along his "climate truth squad" to expose the event as a "farce," and is opening "climate-gate" hearings into recent reports that the scientific community has been suppressing contrary climate science.

While these reports should be investigated, it is neither opinion nor science fiction that climate change is real. Ice caps and glaciers are melting at rates faster than even the worst models predicted; sea levels are rising; storms are more intense; droughts are more severe; and coral reefs are bleaching from higher temperatures. CO2 levels are 70 percent higher today than at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and any Copenhagen accord will only slow that growth, not bend emissions downward to old levels.

Increasingly, denying climate change consigns one to the lunatic fringe with the likes of flat-earthers and birthers. Most of us are in the middle, trying to find our way through the wilderness.

But is there a Jewish response to climate change?

While Al Gore has long been calling climate change the greatest moral issue of our time, more and more Jews are beginning to agree. Hazon, America's largest Jewish environmental group, and COEJL, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, are together promoting their Jewish Climate Change Campaign, inviting Jews to sign a pledge, create green teams at synagogues, and become, as COEJL cleverly asserts, an energy-efficient "light unto nations." Locally, only a few rabbis and professors, mostly from the Reconstructionist and Renewal camps, have signed on.

So yes, it is a moral -- and a Jewish -- issue. While God promised Noah no more floods, we are busily flooding the world ourselves. If we take tikkun olam seriously, any version of healing the world must address a globally warmed planet.

Yet even "climate-change haters" -- to co-opt a Sarah Palinism -- should back an accord that gets us to a post-fossil-fuel economy. Starving Arab dictators of precious petrodollars is just smart policy. Since a newer, greener economy is coming anyway, the question is whether or not we choose to lead the industry that will help put us back to work.

On Dec. 11, we light the first candle of Chanukah, while coincidentally, world leaders will still be gathered in Copenhagen. While we mark the miracle where a little oil lasted a very long time, that candle should remind us to find new, God-inspired ways to conserve energy.

If climate change is the moral issue of this century, the Jewish response is simple: Fix it.

Naturalist Mike Weilbacher is on the board of J-SPAN, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network and blogs at: www.mikeweilbacher.blogspot.com. E-mail him at: mike.weilbacher@verizon.net.

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