The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize has been jointly awarded to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for their work on researching and publicizing the perils of global climate change. In fact, global warming goes way beyond “an inconvenient truth”. We are overheating our planet to alarming levels with potentially catastrophic consequences. 2006 was the hottest year on record in the U.S. and 11 of the past 12 years have been the hottest on record. Think of an overheated car (and what we drive), an overcooked dinner (and what we eat), and someone sick with a fever (and how we act). Now imagine that on a planetary scale.
As a people who are supposed to be “compassionate children of compassionate ancestors”, and a “light unto the nations”, Jews have a special responsibility to help save the world by working to halt global warming. After the first step of admitting the problem, another truth is that we have to take action. The Hebrew word for human being (adam) comes from the word for the Earth (adamah), showing the intimate and inescapable relationships between Earth and Earthlings, people and nature, food and the environment.
Global warming is perhaps the biggest social, political economic, moral, and environmental problem facing our planet and its inhabitants. Global warming refers to the increasing average temperature of the Earth’s air and water. People are becoming increasingly aware of and concerned about global warming and its consequences, despite ExxonMobil misinformation and Bush Administration obfuscation, due to frequent reports regarding record heat, wildfires, an increase in the number and severity of storms, droughts, the melting of glaciers, permafrost, and polar ice caps, rising sea levels, flooding, changes in wind direction, acidification of the oceans, endangered species, spreading diseases, shrinking lakes, submerged islands, and environmental refugees. We may be standing at a precipice. UN weapons inspector Hans Blix has said: “To me the question of the environment is more ominous than that of peace and war.... I’m more worried about global warming than I am of any major military conflict.”
At the close of 2006, there were reports of at least three major events that dramatized the present threat of global warming: (1) the Indian island of Lohachara had to be evacuated before being submerged, creating over 10,000 refugees; (2) the massive Ayles Ice Shelf broke off from the Canadian Arctic; and (3) the Bush Administration, which has been resistant to addressing global warming, and generally hostile toward the environment, agreed that polar bears are “threatened”, mainly due to melting ice caused by global warming, and moved to protect them under the Endangered Species Act. Global warming is also endangering penguins, seals, walruses, sea turtles, salmon, elephants, apes, frogs, butterflies, birds, and many other animals, threatening up to one-third of all species. In contrast, increases in carbon dioxide and heat levels will lead to an increase in the number and range of mosquitos, further spreading discomfort and disease. “Climate change will hurt every one of us in every part of the globe”, according to New Paltz Mayor Jason West, author of Dare to Hope, “no matter how much money we make or how many prayers we say.”
This comes on top of other recent catastrophes: the collapse of ice shelves in Antarctica and Greenland; unprecedented weather events around the world, such as Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma; killer heat waves, causing among other things, a bust of the ski season in Europe and the deaths of 35,000-50,000 people in Europe in the summer of 2003; the disappearing of glaciers from Glacier National Park in Montana and elsewhere (about 80% of the world’s glaciers are shrinking); severe drought in Australia and elsewhere; and other ominous signs of disaster. 2007 is also not boding well with droughts, fires, floods, storms, and more. “Such a path is not merely unsustainable”, according to Harvard Professor John P. Holdren, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “it is a prescription for disaster.”
Humanity is threatened as perhaps never before and major changes have to occur to put our imperiled planet on a sustainable path - and soon. Even though a small number of individuals argue against global warming, there is a scientific and environmental consensus - among all major scientific and environmental organizations, journals, and magazines, and all peer-reviewed scholarly articles - that global warming is real, serious, worsening, and caused by human activity. The evidence is overwhelming and the only real disagreement is about intensity. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Fourth Assessment Report in February 2007, which was researched and written by about 2,500 climate scientists over the past six years and vetted by over 130 governments. The Report carefully delineates clear trends and potentially catastrophic consequences associated with climate change, warning of the possibility of irreversible change, unless we make concerted efforts to counter global warming. The IPCC makes it plain that the current and projected climate change is not simply “natural variation”, but “very likely” (meaning at least 90%) the result of human activity. Even Time Magazine (and the Brookings Institution, the Smithsonian, National Geographic, among many others) has declared the “case closed” on the problem of global warming, with only the solutions to still debate. Scientific American states that the case for global warming is “undeniable”.
Several leading experts, including James Hansen of NASA and physicist Stephen Hawking, perhaps the most famous living scientist, as well as Al Gore, warn that global climate change may reach a ‘tipping point’ and spiral out of control, or perhaps even flip, with disastrous consequences, if current conditions continue. A recent 700-page British government report, authored by a former chief economist for the World Bank, projects losses of up to 20% of world gross domestic product by 2050 unless 1% of current world domestic product is devoted to combating global climate change. Other economic studies have projected even worse scenarios.
It therefore should not be surprising that the Pentagon states that global warming is a larger threat than even terrorism. “Picture Japan, suffering from flooding along its coastal cities and contamination of its fresh water supply, eyeing Russia’s Sakhalin Island oil and gas reserves as an energy source”, suggests a Pentagon memo on global warming. “Envision Pakistan, India and China - all armed with nuclear weapons - skirmishing at their borders over refugees, access to shared river and arable land.” Shrinking ice packs in the Asian Himalayas, European Alps, Peruvian Quelccaya (the largest ice cap in the tropics), and California Sierras, along with changes in the thermohaline circulation system (ocean conveyor belt), could have dramatic and devastating impacts. The Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, has said that climate change needs to be taken as seriously as war and, further, that “changes in our environment and the resulting upheavals from droughts to inundated coastal areas to loss of arable land are likely to become a major driver of war and conflict”. Fighting global warming may be one way to prevent future wars, simultaneously increasing energy security and physical security.
Jews have additional causes for concern. While Jews have traditionally been committed to compassion, social justice, and concern for the needy, the people most affected by global warming are the poor and socially disadvantaged, since they are in the weakest position to guard against environmental damages and will likely suffer the most harm. In the underdeveloped world, and perhaps especially in China, India, and Southeast Asia, as well as much of Africa and the Middle East, global warming will negatively affect urban drinking water systems, agricultural output, and commercial and other transport on rivers, causing untold suffering and turmoil. If we don’t care for the less fortunate, who are we?
Further, increased suffering and increasing numbers of environmental refugees, along with greater anxiety over access to food, water, land, and housing, the material essentials of life, often lead to unstable conditions that give rise to anger, ethnic violence, terrorism, fascism, and war, which all-too-often have been targeted at Jewish and other minority communities. The fallout from climate change may also lead to more terrorism, in addition to famine and disease, by impoverishing and radicalizing people, according to experts. “It’s the poorest of the poor in the world, and this includes poor people even in prosperous societies, who are going to be the worst hit,” said IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri. Those who needlessly degrade and destroy the environment to satisfy their own selfish pleasures, violating various Jewish teachings, are like the pre-revolutionary Queen Marie-Antoinette, declaring “Let them eat carbon dioxide”!
A report commissioned by the U.S.-financed Center for Naval Analyses, written by eleven retired U.S. generals, states that “On the simplest level, [climate change] has the potential to create sustained natural and humanitarian disasters on a scale far beyond those we see today”. The panel of generals, including retired General Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, depicts global warming as “a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world”, which could “seriously exacerbate already marginal living standards in many Asian, African and Middle Eastern nations, causing widespread political instability and the likelihood of failed states”.
Admiral T. Joseph Lopez, former commander-in-chief of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe and of Allied Forces in Southern Europe, agreed that climate change can contribute to “the underlying conditions that terrorists seek to exploit”, thereby making dangerous situations potentially worse. A report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in June 2007 concludes that genocidal conflicts in Darfur, Sudan are related to global warming, especially as it increases drought conditions, and it suggests that this crisis may be replicated in much of North Africa and the Middle East. UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner reminds us that there is an “inescapable linkage” between environmental degradation and social conditions. In Hebrew, the words for bread (lechem) and war (milchama) share the same root, our sages tell us, because a lack of food, water, and other necessities can lead to instability and war, while war often leads to the destruction of food and infrastructure as well as the pollution of water. Once again, we can see the relationships between our diet and our environment, between what we eat and how we live.
All countries, including Israel, are affected by global warming. An Israeli government assessment in 2000, and a follow-up report by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense in 2007, indicates that global warming could cause a triple whammy, each and all of which would heighten tensions and suffering in and around Israel: (1) a rise in temperature of about 3.3 degrees Celsius, adding to the level of discomfort, the need for additional fuel, and the rate of evaporation; (2) a significant increase in the Mediterranean Sea level, which would threaten the narrow coastal strip of land where 60% of Israel's population lives and where major infrastructure, such as ports and power plants, would be destroyed; and (3) a significant decrease in rainfall, estimated at 20-30%, which would disrupt agricultural production and worsen the chronic water scarcity problem in Israel and the region.
This triple whammy does not include the predicted “extreme climate events” that are more likely to occur, exacerbating beach erosion, the decline of tourism, and other problems. Also, Israel’s coastal aquifer, which supplies about 20% of drinking water, is becoming increasingly contaminated by agricultural and industrial pollution. Public health would significantly worsen with increasing water and airborne pollution, damage to water drainage and sewage systems, and other related problems. There would also be significant loss of fauna (e.g., ibexes and hyraxes) and flora (e.g., pine forests). The estimated costs of coping with this global warming scenario would be at least an additional $33 billion per year.
While Israel and its neighbors would lose dry land, along with fresh water, as a result of global warming, the amount of Israeli land taken up by deserts would likely grow, as desertification spreads northward in Israel. Needless to say, land and water are vital albeit scarce resources in this tiny country, yet both are under severe threat from global warming. Similar perils that would swamp Nahariya and Haifa in the north, Netanya, Herzliya, and Tel-Aviv in the middle, Ashdod and Ashkelon near (and along with) Gaza, and Eilat in the south would also befall the rest of the volatile Middle East and the population-dense coastal areas of New York, New Jersey, California, Florida, and other Jewish population centers, if we allow global warming to continue. If we are not for ourselves, who will be?
A collateral benefit of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels to fight global warming is that it will reduce air and water pollution. In the U.S. and Israel, such modern plagues kill many more people each year than terrorism, causing havoc in the present and creating a distressful environmental debt for our descendants, instead of bequeathing a healthy future.
Israel’s Environment Protection Ministry’s website states that “preservation of Israel’s water resources is one of the major challenges confronting the country today, especially as Israel entered the 21st century with one of its greatest water overdrafts ever.” Yet water continues to be wasted, used inefficiently, diverted for unnecessary activities, and heavily polluted. “Historically, Israel hasn’t valued its natural resources,” regrets Gidon Bromberg, Director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, an organization comprised of Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian environmentalists. Indeed, “Of the 16 rivers that flow into the Mediterranean and 25 that reach the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret, none is clean enough to swim in,” according to Michelle Borinstein writing for the Jerusalem Post. “Sewage freely flows where fresh water once did. Rich ecosystems supporting varieties of fauna, flora and water-life now wallow in pollution where even microbes struggle to survive.”
In Tel Aviv, for example, multilingual signs proclaim the Yarkon River too “dangerous” to swim in or drink, while over 1,000 people die annually from the air they breathe in the city. Nationwide, one out of every five Israeli children suffers from asthma or other breathing difficulties as a result of air pollution. Energy independence and self-sufficiency, especially in the form of decentralized renewable fuel sources, such as solar power, is an important step toward a more sustainable world.
Yes, we need our governments, corporations, schools, synagogues, temples, and other organizations to get actively involved in fighting global warming. Yes, the U.S. - the largest contributor to global warming - needs to join 175 others, including Israel, and ratify the Kyoto Protocol - and then strengthen it. Yes, we need to stop deforestation and increase reforestation. Yes, we need more resource conservation and more energy-efficient cars, appliances, electronics, batteries, and light bulbs, and, yes, our society needs to switch away from fossil fuels and toward renewable ones, such as solar, wind, tidal, wave, biomass, geothermal, and others. Indeed, Israel is especially ripe for solar power. But while we are struggling for these important and positive large-scale social changes, we also need to say “yes!” to personal changes.
In fact, the latest IPCC report states that “Changes in lifestyles and consumption patterns that emphasize resource conservation can contribute to developing a low-carbon economy that is both equitable and sustainable.” A major study showing how personal “changes in lifestyles and consumption” can affect global warming is in the November 2006 book-length report of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), entitled “Livestock’s Long Shadow” [http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000448]. It states that animal-based agriculture causes approximately 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, which lead to global warming, an amount significantly greater than that caused by all forms of transportation on the planet combined (about 13.5%). Senior author Henning Steinfeld, Ph.D. adds that “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems”, from the local to the global level. Cars are still problematic, of course, but cows and other animals raised for human consumption are contributing more to global warming, thereby causing more damage to our existence. Therefore, what we eat is actually more important than what we drive and the most important personal change we could make for the environment, as well as for our own health and the lives of animals, is a switch to vegetarianism. And we can do it right now, if we choose.
The world is feeding over 50 billion farmed animals, while millions of people, disproportionately children, starve to death each year. Over 70% of the grain produced in the U.S. (and about one-third produced worldwide) is inefficiently and immorally diverted to feed farmed animals, to satisfy appetites for money and meat, as it takes up to sixteen pounds of grain to produce a single pound of feedlot beef for human consumption. The UN FAO study reports that the livestock industry, in total, uses and abuses roughly 30% of the planet’s surface, thereby “entering into direct competition [with other activities] for scarce land, water and other natural resources.” Further, overuse of the land by livestock, leading to overuse of fuel and water, also degrades the land, erodes the topsoil, and pollutes the water around it, contributing to additional environmental and health problems.
An animal-based diet also uses energy very inefficiently. It can require 78 calories of fossil fuel for each calorie of protein obtained from feedlot-produced beef, but only 2 calories of fossil fuel to produce a calorie of protein from soybeans. Grains and beans require only 2 - 5% as much fossil fuel as beef. The energy needed to produce a pound of grain-fed beef is equivalent to one gallon of gasoline. Reducing energy consumption is not only a better choice in terms of fighting climate change, it is also a better choice in terms of being less dependent on foreign oil and the vagaries of both markets and dictators.
Additionally, the editors of World Watch (July/August 2004) concluded that “The human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future — deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.” Lee Hall, the legal director for Friends of Animals, is more succinct: “Behind virtually every great environmental complaint there’s milk and meat.” Environmental destruction isn’t kosher.
While growing concern about global warming is welcome, the many connections between the increasingly globalized Standard American Diet (SAD) and global warming have generally been overlooked or marginalized. The production of meat contributes substantially to the emission of the three major gases associated with global warming: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O), as well as other eco-destructive gases such as ammonia (NH3), which contributes to acid rain, and hydrogen sulfide (H2S), which has been implicated in mass extinctions.
Indeed, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, Unit on Climate Change, “There is a strong link between human diet and methane emissions from livestock.” The 2004 World Watch publication State of the World is more specific regarding the link between animals raised for meat and global warming: “Belching, flatulent livestock emit 16% of the world’s annual production of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.” Likewise with the July 2005 issue of Physics World: “The animals we eat emit 21% of all the carbon dioxide that can be attributed to human activity.” Eating meat and other animal products directly contributes to this environmentally-irresponsible industry and its devastating impact on the environment, including the dire threat of global warming.
While carbon dioxide is the most plentiful greenhouse gas (and is currently about 35% higher than pre-industrial atmospheric levels), methane is 23 times more powerful (and about 150% higher than pre-industrial atmospheric levels), and nitrous oxide is a whopping 296 times more potent (and about 20% higher than pre-industrial atmospheric levels), than carbon dioxide in terms of global warming potential. With the livestock industry emitting such a huge amount of methane and given that methane degrades relatively quickly in the atmosphere (in approximately 12 years as compared to hundreds or even thousands of years for carbon dioxide), a sharp decrease in animal consumption, and therefore subsequent livestock production and reproduction, would provide the necessary near-term alleviation from global warming potentially “spinning out of control”. “If we learned that Al Qaeda was secretly developing a new terrorist technique that could disrupt water supplies around the globe, force tens of millions from their homes and potentially endanger our entire planet”, writes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, “we would be aroused into a frenzy and deploy every possible asset to neutralize the threat. Yet that is precisely the threat that we’re creating ourselves, with our greenhouse gases.”
Global warming isn’t kosher. Changing from the Standard American Diet to a vegetarian or, better yet, vegan diet, according to geophysicists Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin at the University of Chicago, does more to fight global warming than switching from a gas-guzzling Hummer to a Camry or from a Camry to a Prius. Shifting away from SUVs, SUV lifestyles, and SUV-style diets, to energy-efficient, life-affirming alternatives, is essential to fighting global warming. Planetary sustainability and the well-being of humanity are greatly dependent on a shift toward plant-based diets. One easy and effective way to fight global warming every day is with our forks and knives! And we should do so for the sake of Heaven and Earth. If we don’t, the “procrastination penalty” will be painful. “How wonderful it is”, Anne Frank wrote in her diary, “that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
Indeed, the Talmud says that “Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not do so is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.” (Shabbat 54b). Additionally, the Maharal of Prague, a sixteenth-century sage, states that “individual piety pales in the face of the sin of not protesting against an emerging communal evil, and a person will be held accountable for not preventing wickedness when capable of doing so.” And in the twentieth century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that “indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself “. Rabbi Heschel further and famously said that in a democratic society, “some are guilty, but all are responsible”. Without doubt, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to act against global warming.
It is increasingly clear that eliminating, or at least sharply reducing, the production and consumption of meat and other animal products is imperative to help reduce global warming and other grave environmental threats, in addition to benefitting one’s physical, mental, and spiritual health. Such a dietary change is fully consistent with Jewish teachings and values regarding taking care of human health, treating animals compassionately, preserving the environment, conserving natural resources, helping hungry people and protecting the weak, and pursuing peace and justice. As Jews are taught to be partners with God — and each other — in working for tikkun olam, healing and repairing of the world, we need to start with ourselves and we need to start now.
Mark Twain once quipped that “Everybody talks about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it.” Now we can. “Adopting a vegetarian lifestyle”, declares Nimrod Halpern in Haaretz, “is about the most efficient thing you can do to reduce greenhouse gases”. We must become our planet’s keeper. If not now, when?
Dan Brook, Ph.D., is an author, speaker, activist, community mediator, and instructor of sociology at San Jose State University. He also maintains Eco-Eating at www.brook.com/veg, The Vegetarian Mitzvah at www.brook.com/jveg, No Smoking? at www.brook.com/smoke, and welcomes comments via Brook@california.com.
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, and over 150 articles located at www.JewishVeg.com/schwartz. He is President of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) at www.JewishVeg.com, Coordinator of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV) at www.serv-online.org/, and welcomes comments via President@JewishVeg.com