The environment might not seem like an especially Jewish cause, but it’s been a central concern since — well, ever since the Bible decided to start with Creation rather than the Exodus. It motivated the medieval kosher laws and the early kibbutzniks. Today the stakes are higher than ever, as carbon-based fuels threaten the very future habitability of the planet.


What you need to know

Scientists have believed with growing certainty for more than two decades that human activity — mostly the burning of carbon-based fuels like coal and oil — builds up certain gases in the earth’s atmosphere that trap the sun’s heat in a so-called greenhouse effect. The result is a gradual but steady change in the planet’s climate, including higher average temperatures, more extreme weather, partial melting of glaciers including the polar ice caps, and rising sea levels. Until recently the scientific community generally described the phenomenon of global warming as “probably” due to human activity, but doubts are dissipating as new scientific studies emerge and dramatic weather events speak for themselves.

International efforts to curb the process have not kept pace with the science. This is partly due to conflicting interests of industrialized and developing nations. In part, too, it is due to the failure of the United States to put its weight behind the international climate process. Strong opposition from political conservatives who deny the process is real, and from business interests resistant to the economic costs of finding alternative energy sources, has prevented America from developing a coherent climate policy consistent with its leadership status and obligations as the world’s largest economy.


How can change happen?

Fighting climate change entails many different decisions by many people, both individually and collectively. We’ve collected a host of questions and answers on how to think about it and where to start. Can we save the planet one home at a time — one light bulb, one recycling bin, one compost heap, one alternative fuel vehicle after another? Or does it depend on sweeping policy changes at the top? Should we work with the market, through cap and trade or similar legislation, or does it require top-down control, regulation and taxation of carbon use? Some policy-makers say fully practical alternative fuels are a generation away, and we must move faster by short-term increases in nuclear power and fracking of natural gas, despite their environmental risks. Others say the dangers of those fuels to the environment are too great to risk their use as a greenhouse alternative.

In a deeper sense, these issues raise questions about humankind’s stewardship of the earth, our species’ relationship with the planet we live on and our obligations to future generations.


What we are doing about it

The emergence of the modern environmental movement is usually dated to the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s landmark book, Silent Spring. Over time a wide variety of organizations have grown up to speak for various constituencies and address various aspects of the crisis. The Jewish environmental movement includes one big alliance, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, that brings together a broad range of major community organizations and coordinates their activities with those of other religious communities.

In addition, there are a number of smaller organizations working at the grassroots level on direct action — on projects range from promoting sustainability in the workplace to tending local ecologies, learning to live within our means and resisting big energy company abuses. There is also a strong, longstanding Jewish vegetarian movement that has gained new prominence as we come to understand more about the relationship between what we eat and where we live.