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Repair the World’s Climate

By Bill McKibben

In the last 20 years, I’ve watched the religious environmental movement grow from nothing — less than nothing, really. Twenty years ago, liberal religious communities thought of the environment as something to get to once poverty and war had been defeated, and many conservative faith groups viewed it as suspiciously pagan.

But that’s changed — decisively. A couple of years ago, when a few of us organized the first big global day of action around climate change for 350.org, we found huge support in religious communities everywhere — from the patriarch of the Orthodox church, to the head of South Africa’s Muslims, the Dalai Lama, to the evangelical college where Billy Graham went to school — but it was the Jewish community that provided some of the most powerful backing, and I think I know why.

It’s because climate change is more than the worst practical problem human civilization has yet encountered — it’s also a deep, deep ethical dilemma. Even as we’re accustomed to saying that global warming is “caused by humans,” that’s not entirely true. It’s really only caused by some humans — those who burn significant amounts of coal, gas and oil. About 40 percent of the greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere, for instance, originated in the United States.

But those emissions are having devastating effects everywhere. In fact, those effects are worst in places that are least responsible for the trouble precisely because they’re so poor. In 2010, a quarter of Pakistan was underwater from epic flooding — exactly the sort of flooding climatologists have predicted, and that we’ve seen playing out in many places — but the average Pakistani peasant farmer has done almost nothing to cause the problem. Ditto the average African peasant farmer watching drought wither his crops, or the average Andean farmer watching the glaciers that have been the source of his water supply melt away.

That exquisitely tough ethical problem means that we need the thousands of years of ethical thinking that is one of Judaism’s great legacies. The profound idea of tikkun olam has two meanings here. One is the literal repair of the world: The planet is broken, with more carbon in the atmosphere than our systems can handle. In 2008, NASA climatologist James Hansen and his team reported that any value for carbon in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million is “not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” Since we’re at 392 parts per million right now, we’re by definition in need of quick repair.

The other lesson of tikkun olam is that we need to repair those breaches between people that come when some suffer because of the excess of others. To me, that’s why our work at 350.org has been so exciting: Across the globe, people on every part of the spectrum — from victim of climate change to cause of it — have come together to make a common witness. I remember that first global day of action, when the people who lived around the rapidly shrinking Dead Sea wanted to draw attention to their common plight. Borders made it hard, so the Jordanians said they would make a giant human “3” on their shore, Palestinians a giant “5,” and Israelis an enormous “0.” Viewed from above, it may have been the most beautiful image in a day of 5,100 demonstrations — beautiful because it reminded us so powerfully that there is a way forward.


Bill McKibben is the author of numerous books about the environment, beginning with The End of Nature in 1989, which is regarded as the first book for a general audience on climate change. He is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, which has coordinated 15,000 rallies in 189 countries since 2009. Time magazine called him “the planet’s best green journalist” and the Boston Globe said in 2010 that he was “probably the country’s most important environmentalist.” Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, McKibben holds honorary degrees from a dozen colleges. In 2011 he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The Jewish Energy Guide presents a comprehensive Jewish approach to the challenges of energy security and climate change and offers a blueprint for the Jewish community to achieve a 14% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by September of 2014, which is the next Shmittah, or sabbatical, year in the Jewish calendar.

The Jewish Energy Guide is part of COEJL’s Jewish Energy Network, a collaborative effort with Jewcology’s Year of Action to engage Jews in energy action and advocacy.The guide was created in partnership with the Green Zionist Alliance.

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