A Jewish Response to Climate Change

Under the auspices of New York Interfaith Power & Light, I’ve launched a new initiative, Aklim – A Jewish Response to Climate Change.

The old national initiative, Coalition of the Environment and Jewish Learning (COEJL), is defunct and its website is no longer functional. An updated approach to Jews and Climate Change is long overdue.

Of all of the religious traditions in the United States that have taken a stand on climate change, that it’s real and it’s human-made, the Jewish organizations have been one of the least active. This inertia needs to be rectified.

There are many great causes out there that deserve the imprint of the moral certainty of religion. All of these great issues of social justice are for naught though if we don’t address climate change. Indeed, many of these issues that stand as priorities today are effects of climate change. Immigration from Central America is rooted in climate change destroying the agricultural cycles in Honduras and Guatemala, leading to poverty and starvation. The corrupt regimes could not respond. The Syrian civil war begins with the rapid desertification of marginal lands in Southern Syria. Assad forcefully declined to help his migrating people, and years of frustration burst into protest and violence.

Politicians do not want to touch climate change. Climate change mitigation is messy and the U.S. pricetag begins at trillions of dollars. Further, the Fossil Fuel industry donates huge sums to political campaigns. They also fund political action committees to sabotage politicians who do not adhere to the fossil fuel industry directives, raising up challengers to unseat established legislators.

In one voice, the religious traditions need to rise up and place climate change as THE priority. It is time that all the Jewish denominations added their wherewithal to the struggle.

Testimony before the NY State Senate Committee

Testimony before the NY State Environmental Conservation Committee

12 February 2019

I am Rabbi Glenn Jacob, and while I am executive director of New York Interfaith Power & Light – an organization dedicated to passing climate science-based legislation from a religious perspective, I come here first representing the initial wave of climate refugees in New York State. In 2012 on 29 October, Superstorm Sandy slammed my neighborhood in Oceanside, Long Island with a five-foot surge of water. My house had over $100,000 worth of damage, of which $18,000 was covered by flood insurance. I told my wife the day after the storm that we would move, and in November 2017, I moved from 25 miles east of Manhattan to 40 miles north.

My personal experience is framed in my religious perspective. I and my organization are non-partisan, representing about 15 different religious denominations from Suffolk County on Long Island to the city of Buffalo, with all points, rural, suburban, and urban in between. The message we bring is that climate change is a moral issue and the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA) is a matter of personal and professional integrity.

Contrary to caricatures, most synagogues, churches, mosques, temples, and gurdwaras have no issue accepting scientific facts, concepts, and conclusions. Climate change is real, climate change is manmade, and the only question is what is humanity going to do? To do nothing, to keep the status quo is evil in religious language. It is the path to more harm and danger to human life – deliberating allowing destruction is evil, a human, preventable evil.

The good news, to borrow the term from the Protestant Tradition, is that we have the knowledge base, the technology and the wherewithal to address climate change. Everything to address climate change is in some sort of readiness in New York State, from detailed plans for job creation to the equitable spread of resources, to energy infrastructure initiatives. The only thing we have lacked in the last few years is the political will.

Our religious traditions do not tolerate half-truths, because they have no integrity. To say that we are going to lose jobs in the fossil fuel industry is to deny that we are bringing entirely new energy industries into the state. To say that the CCPA will cause prices to rise is a half-truth as well. We already balk at paying for the damages of evermore powerful storms and violent temperature swings. Roads meant to last 20 years are lasting 15 years or less; we have yet to fix the most expensive damage from Sandy. Do you want to spend the taxpayers’ money solving the crisis or do you want to spend ever increasing sums patching roads, wires, sewers, channels, and buildings, which we see are already falling short of completion, just to maintain the status quo?

Whether you want to or not, you will be spending large sums of taxpayer funds on climate change in the coming years. The climate science and our real-world experience confirm this conclusion; no prophecy is necessary. Climate change is more than a technical issue, a reasonable issue, or a political issue; it is an unavoidable moral issue. The question from your religious constituents is: Are you going to spend state funds with integrity, namely the CCPA and its goals to address climate change, or are you going to squander the short twelve-year window we have to address climate change? We are the first generation to confront climate change and we are the last generation that can address climate change.

As I stated in the beginning, the CCPA is a matter of integrity, the integrity of the political will to act.

The Last Storm

Thunderstorms rolled through Tuesday afternoon, possibly spawning tornados. Strong winds bent and broke healthy trees, sending them careening through powerlines, houses, and even several cars. People died. Because of two trees down on two different streets, I was trapped in my neighborhood and my wife, stranded in Grand Central Station, had a staggering five-hour journey to our area, but not our home. She did not make it to our house until after sunrise the next morning.

My bona fides: We lived through Superstorm Sandy on the south shore of Long Island in 2012, living in our flooded house without electricity for fifteen days. In our new location north of New York City, we lost power for eight days from the second nor’easter of the year to rip through the area and now, we just had four days without power from a line of powerful thunderstorms.

My heightened sense of fear of life without electrics paid off. My house has a built-in generator with its own emergency electrical panel and is powered by a huge propane tank. In the aftermath of Sandy, I had to walk a mile and a half to the closest powered gas station (courtesy of the National Guard) and stand in a long line to get my two gallons of gas for the generator.

My propane generator powers a few things such as the water well, the refrigerator, two outlets, and lights in the kitchen. My stovetop uses the same propane tank, leaving me the ability to cook meals. I can function, even though my cell phone and tablet are poor substitutes for a dedicated desktop connected to the internet.

Still, the loss of electrics throws us into a crisis and overlays our days with an ever-creeping sense of helplessness. Our neighbors are good people at heart and just as helpless. We shared a shot of bourbon as we commiserated over the fallen tree, our cars trapped on both sides. We shook hands with Tony, the contractor working on the house next door, who brought over his chain saws and set his crew to cutting up the tree and moving it out of the road.

The area in which I live is used to trees falling on powerlines. Most of us own generators, which are highly inefficient machines that generate small amounts of electricity while spewing toxic emissions and producing an ear-splitting amount of racket. Our wells require power to bring water into the house. We have temporary measures to ease us through the outages.

My immediate history is not bad luck; it is climate change. Following the science closely because of my job, the models predicted these vicious bouts of weather. Weather events, such as hurricanes hitting Long Island are expected, but the violence of these events is ratcheting up, such as the rain bomb of the Houston hurricane and the wind shears over Puerto Rico and St. Thomas. One hundred and five hundred-year storms are hitting some areas every eighteen months. The most extreme models of climate change are proving to be the most accurate. These events are not my or anyone else’s bad luck; these destructive storms are the outcome of years of spewing carbon into the atmosphere.

I ran into a representative from my local electric utility at a state convention last week, two weeks after the storm. With a brief description, she was able to pinpoint where I lived without me surrendering even a partial address. I asserted, and she confirmed that the present infrastructure was not designed for and had poor resiliency to cope with the climate patterns of the past several years. My experience and the utility’s experience are confirmations that these early effects of climate change are already profound, requiring billions of dollars in infrastructure investment and sweeping changes in human behavior.

I cannot escape these changes. Funny thing about climate: no matter where you are reading this essay, you are experiencing climate change and sometimes, its devasting effects. Like me, you depend upon electricity as an uninterrupted service. When one cell tower goes down, connectivity plummets, bringing work to a stuttering halt. Daily functioning stumbles and work-arounds prove themselves to be fantasies.

This is your life as well; I have a generator at least.

I am Rabbi Glenn Jacob and I am executive director of New York Interfaith Power & Light. Our mission is to inspire and engage people of faith and religious communities to actively steward and sustain our natural environment. In one unified voice of the world’s religions, we lead the battle to bring clean renewable energy to our communities, lobby for energy legislation, and teach others how to bring the many varied voices of our country together to save the planet. Please join us.