Central Conference of American Rabbis Resolution on the Climate Crisis

Some language in this resolution, particularly in the background section, is adapted from a 2021 sermon by Rabbi Ron Segal, Senior Rabbi of Temple Sinai, Atlanta, Georgia and CCAR President 2019–2021.

May 20, 2022

Background

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a U.N. body comprised of international climate scientists, issues an assessment report once every six to seven years. Its most recent report, released on February 28, 2022, presented “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” according to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. Endorsed by one hundred ninety-five countries and created by two hundred seventy researchers from over sixty countries, the report reaffirmed that climate change is human-caused and emphasized that unless greenhouse gas emissions are quickly reduced, the world’s collective ability to overcome the crisis will soon be overwhelmed. The report also concluded that nations are not doing enough to ameliorate current symptoms of the crisis, which will only worsen over time until the root of the problem is resolved.[i] Extreme weather phenomena such as floods, fires, droughts, and storms are increasing in intensity and frequency; such events displaced millions of people worldwide over the last four years,[ii] exacerbated global hunger and malnutrition through crop destruction, and enabled wider spread of malaria and dengue via increased mosquito range. Deadly heat waves have killed thousands of North Americans, half of the global population lives with water scarcity for at least some part of the year, and wildfires in Australia, Siberia, and the United States have led to habitat and biodiversity loss as well as fatalities and property damage.[iii] Some CCAR members and their communities have personally experienced the ravages of climate change, living through or with the after-effects of superstorms, floods, wildfires, and other events. In 2017, URJ Camp Newman was lost to the Tubbs wildfire.

The IPCC report’s numerous disconcerting findings include a harbinger of worse events to come: “The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.”[iv]

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, nations agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in order to keep global temperatures from rising two degrees Celsius (ideally less than 1.5 degrees Celsius). If countries continue to emit greenhouse gases at current levels, global temperature rise will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius, which will cause or exacerbate extreme heat waves, droughts, decreased rainfall, decreased crop yields, species loss, ocean acidification resulting in coral reef bleaching, and sea level rise. All of these will impact global health and mortality, food security, water supply, and economic growth. With methane a significant factor in global temperature increases, 2022 reports on methane indicate that sudden surges of methane emissions may disrupt international efforts to stop the planet from warming 1.5 degrees Celsius. Although methane represents only ten percent of U.S. greenhouse emissions and has a shorter lifespan in the atmosphere, it is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, with deadlier consequences: one ton of methane in the atmosphere has about eighty times the warming impact of a ton of carbon dioxide.[v] Plugging abandoned wells, sealing unused pipelines, covering landfills, and preventing crop waste can help reduce dangerous methane emissions, buying the world a little more time to address more significant emissions categories.[vi]

It is not just those with advanced degrees who are signaling that the time is now for action to reduce the human-made causes of climate change. Many organizers, especially young people, have readily perceived climate change as an ever-growing threat to American safety and global well-being. In their personal practice and in their advocacy, these youths have swiftly moved to act on the seriousness and long-term implications of climate change. “For children and young people,” wrote four youth climate change activists, “climate change is the single greatest threat to our futures.”[vii] Young adults who are empowered to guide our families and our communities in the battle against global warming might very well inspire and lead us to better choices, stronger action, and greater commitment to climate change redress.

CCAR members may also take heed from Jewish tradition to support the need to engage in efforts to counter climate change. Numerous sources and texts implore us to recognize our sacred obligation to be responsible stewards of the earth, beginning with the creation narratives in Genesis, where we read that God placed the first humans in the Garden of Eden and told them to care for and tend to it. Three distinct times in the Torah, we are commanded to observe Sh’mita, the seventh year of rest for the land during which we must let the land lie fallow so that it can rejuvenate itself. In Deuteronomy, we learn about bal tashchit, the ethical commandment prohibiting the wanton destruction of trees—and, by extension, other elements of nature—even during times of war. And in the midrash, there is God’s prescient warning to the first human beings: “Look at how beautiful and excellent My works are! Take care not to spoil or destroy My world, for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you”[viii] The holiday of Tu BiSh’vat is celebrated as the birthday of the trees; the midrash of Honi and the carob tree speaks of our responsibility to posterity so that they will enjoy, cherish, and leave behind a fruitful world.[ix] When considering the IPCC report and the cascading effects of climate change, especially catastrophes such as fires and floods, the stirring and moving words of Un’taneh Tokef pierce the soul with new resonance: “Mi yichyeh u’mi yamut… mi va-eish umi vamayim—who will live and who will die… who by fire and who by water…” 

An additional and compelling chapter of the results of climate change is the intersection of historic environmental racism, climate change, and poverty. A recent nationwide tally of trees, generating a Tree Equity Score for one hundred fifty thousand neighborhoods and four hundred eighty-six urbanized areas,[x] revealed that a map of tree cover in America’s cities is often a map of income and race as well, reflecting the New Deal era’s racist legacy of redlining.[xi] Researchers found that neighborhoods with ninety percent or more residents living in poverty have less than half the amount of tree canopy that more affluent communities do. Fewer trees compromise an area’s ability to cool down, resulting in urban heat islands, leading to sustained exposure to extreme temperatures from which there is often little escape, and consequently causes far more heat-related deaths. A study published in 2020 showed that redlined neighborhoods are an average of five degrees Fahrenheit warmer than non-redlined neighborhoods in the same metropolitan area; in some cities, the temperature difference is as high as twenty degrees Fahrenheit. Cheap land and disregard for the residents’ health resulted in heat-absorbing projects like construction sites and highways being built in redlined neighborhoods. Such industrial projects also worsened air quality. A study released in March 2022 found that even fifty years after redlining was outlawed, its results are still causing harm: forty-five million Americans, mostly Black and Latino, breathe dirtier air due to increased vehicle emissions and other industrial air pollutants, causing long-term health problems like asthma and strokes in vulnerable communities that have fewer resources or recourse to redress such grievances.[xii] These environmental injustices are further compounded by the effects of climate change.

Climate change also exacerbates existing gender inequalities due to a multitude of social, economic, and cultural factors. Around the globe, women have less access to resources such as land, credit, agricultural inputs, decision-making structures, and technology. Seventy percent of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty are women. Women are more dependent on natural resources, especially in rural areas where they must ensure adequate supply of household necessities such as water, food, and energy sources for cooking and heating. The time they must devote to these tasks prevents them from accessing education and training, which precludes them from developing skills or earning income, which in turn are vital in staving off consequences of climate change.[xiii] Childcare responsibilities may also hinder women from migrating, seeking refuge, or working when a disaster hits. When this happens, women must travel farther for resources like water and fuel, increasing their risk of violence, human trafficking, and sexual assault.[xiv] Climate refugees are more likely to be women; and, when displaced, women and girls are less able to access education, economic opportunities, and contraception.[xv] Economic hardship exacted by the climate crisis forces families to marry off their daughters for survival: in Malawi and Mozambique in 2017, extreme floods and droughts caused dire penury and food insecurity for many families, which put 1.5 million girls at risk of becoming child brides. UNICEF warned in 2015 that the total number of child brides across Africa could reach three hundred ten million by 2050.[xvi]

Climate change has and will continue to harm vulnerable nations that lack the resources to protect themselves from increasingly worse climate consequences. Worse, these nations often contribute little to no greenhouse gas emissions themselves, leaving them to suffer the consequences of wealthier polluter nations such as the United States, China, India, Russia, Japan, and the European Union. Even though Madagascar has contributed less than 0.01 percent of the world’s annual carbon emissions in the last eighty years, the country is experiencing the world’s first famine resulting directly from climate change. This famine has caused severe or extreme hunger and malnutrition for thousands of Malagasy people, including children, and the effects of such food insecurity will cause long-term damage. Since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the United States has emitted over four hundred billion metric tons of carbon dioxide—twice the amount of the second biggest emitter, China. Ice core analyses of greenhouse gas emission find that concentrations of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide were always lower before industrialization.

Reflecting upon the challenges we know we will have to navigate, and considering the recommendations of professionals, experts, and passionate volunteers who are deeply immersed in environmental work, we understand that we must make climate change a priority: Forward editor Rob Eshman emphasized, “Climate change needs to be on the agenda and priority list of every single Jewish organization, agency, synagogue [and individual].… Jews must take climate change as seriously as we do antisemitism, [because] if we as humans get climate change wrong, [then] it will make very little difference what we as Jews get right.” [xvii] A 2021 Jewish Electorate Institute poll of eight hundred Jewish voters prompted them to choose two issues on which they wanted President Biden and Congress to focus. Climate change was at the top of the priority list.[xviii]

The Reform Movement has a robust history of addressing climate change, evidenced in recent years by the 2015 CCAR Resolution on Climate Justice,[xix] and the 2017 Union for Reform Judaism Resolution on Addressing the Impacts of Climate Change.[xx]

Therefore, the Central Conference of American Rabbis hereby resolves to:

  1. Urge all CCAR members to further educate themselves and the individuals and communities they serve about climate change and its deadly cascade of impacts, especially those impacts that incorporate an intersectional and/or international consideration of climate change inquiry such as racial inequity, gender inequality, and social justice.
  2. Encourage CCAR members and the congregations and organizations they serve to lead and participate in events that raise awareness of climate change and its harmful effects, particularly in conjunction with environmental groups, other faith groups, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) or its state organizing teams, and other appropriate organizations. Ideas include but are not limited to:
    1. Community engagement programs that address key aspects of climate change across lines of difference like race and religion;
    2. A speaker event or series on topics about climate change;
    3. A documentary or movie screening and discussion about climate change and what needs to be done;
    4. Hosting a service project or community event, paired with discussion of climate change;
  3. Advocate, and urge CCAR members and the communities we serve to join in advocacy efforts, in support of comprehensive public policies at the local, state, and federal levels designed to curb American greenhouse gas emissions and address the harms of climate change in an equitable and just way, with guidance from the RAC when appropriate, that may include but are not limited to:
    1. Creating incentives for the most egregious greenhouse gas emitters to dramatically reduce the emissions—such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases—they pump into the atmosphere that destroy our world and endanger all life on Earth;
    2. Transitioning to a low- or zero-emission clean green economy by 2050 or earlier;
    3. Incorporating environmental justice into governmental action; that is, seeking to research, understand, and repair the historical harms done by environmental racism;
    4. Empowering the constituencies most impacted by climate change and centering them and their needs in the process of finding and implementing the best possible solutions to the crisis;
    5. Ensuring that the procurement of necessary materials for a zero-emission economy do not cause or advance unfair or exploitative labor practices, community harms, and/or human rights violations;
    6. Supporting a just transition of fossil fuel workers to meaningful and sustainable employment;
    7. Contacting local, state, and federal level legislators to express concerns about climate change, voicing support for proposed legislation that will help resolve climate change and protect the environment;
    8. Holding the governments of the United States and Canada accountable for our share of the problem, with special regard to our obligations to vulnerable nations experiencing the first and worst effects of climate change.
    9. Recycling products such as paper, plastic, metals, and food waste, and strongly encouraging all members to recycle in all the places they frequent if possible;
    10. Adopting the use of biodegradable products such as bamboo over single- or one-time use products;
    11. Reducing the amount of animal products offered for meals and gatherings;
    12. Exploring the use of alternative energy sources such as solar power;
    13. Replacing energy inefficient bulbs with LED lights;
    14. Installing motion sensors to disable lighting when a room is vacant; and
    15. Supporting national and local initiatives aimed at growing trees and community gardens, especially in areas impacted by inequities correlated to income and race.
  4. Commend the Reform Pension Board (RPB) for establishing the Reform Jewish Values Fund (RJVF), which excludes fossil fuel companies from its investments and invests in clean energy, and urge RPB participants to choose RJVF for at least a portion of their retirement funds invested with the RPB and to be more conscious of their own personal financial investments, remembering that “voting with our wallets” is an important way to live our values and make a difference.

[i] Brad Plumer and Raymond Zhong, “Climate Change Is Harming the Planet Faster Than We Can Adapt, U.N. Warns,” The New York Times, 28 February 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/28/climate/climate-change-ipcc-report.html.

[ii] “Over 10 million displaced by climate disasters in six months: report,” Reuters, 17 March 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-climate-change-displacement/over-10-million-displaced-by-climate-disasters-in-six-months-report-idUSKBN2B90Z8.

[iii] Plumer and Zhong.

[iv] IPCC Sixth Assessment Report: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, Summary for Policymakers, https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/.

[v] “U.S. Methane Emissions Reduction Plan,” 2 November 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/11/02/fact-sheet-president-biden-tackles-methane-emissions-spurs-innovations-and-supports-sustainable-agriculture-to-build-a-clean-energy-economy-and-create-jobs/.

[vi] Pearce, Fred, “Why Methane Is a Large and Underestimated Threat to Climate Goals,” Yale Climate 360, 24 February 2022, https://e360.yale.edu/features/why-methane-is-a-large-and-underestimated-threat-to-climate-goals.

[vii] Thunberg, Greta, Adriana Calderon, Farzana Faruk Jhumu, and Eric Njugana, “This is the World Being Left to Us by Adults,” The New York Times, 19 August 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/19/opinion/climate-un-report-greta-thunberg.html.

[viii] Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13.

[ix] Taanit 23a.

[x] Tree Equity Score “About” page, https://www.treeequityscore.org/about/.

[xi] Cooperman, Courtney, “Environmental Injustice and the Legacy of Redlining,” RAC Blog, 11 August 2021, https://rac.org/blog/environmental-injustice-and-legacy-redlining.

[xii] Fears, Darryl, “Redlining means 45 million Americans are breathing dirtier air, 50 years after it ended,” Washington Post, 9 March 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2022/03/09/redlining-pollution-environmental-justice/.

[xiii] Osman-Elasha, Balgis, “Women…In the Shadow of Climate Change,” UN Chronicle, https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/womenin-shadow-climate-change.

[xiv] McCarthy, Joe, “Understanding Why Climate Change Impacts Women More Than Men,” Global Citizen, 5 March 2020, https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/how-climate-change-affects-women/.

[xv] Medlicott, Lauren Crosby, “The five devastating reasons climate change affects women more than men,” EuroNews.Green, 11 September 2021, https://www.euronews.com/green/2021/11/09/the-five-devastating-reasons-climate-change-affects-women-more-than-men.

[xvi] Chamberlain, Gethin, “Why climate change is creating a new generation of child brides,” The Guardian, 26 November 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/nov/26/climate-change-creating-generation-of-child-brides-in-africa/.

[xvii] Eshman, Rob, “Five things Jews can do to stop climate change,” The Forward, 10 August 2021, https://forward.com./news/474019/five-things-jews-can-do-to-stop-climate-change/.

[xviii] “July 2021 National Survey of Jewish Voters”, Jewish Electorate Institute, July 13, 2021, https://www.jewishelectorateinstitute.org/july-2021-national-survey-of-jewish-voters/.

[xix] CCAR “Resolution on Climate Justice,” October 2015, https://www.ccarnet.org/ccar-resolutions/ccar-resolution-climate-justice/.

[xx] URJ “Resolution on Addressing the Impacts of Climate Change,” December 2017, https://urj.org/what-we-believe/resolutions/resolution-addressing-impacts-climate-change.