This article was originally published on “The Well” by Stand Up: Jewish Commitment to a Better World on December 12th 2015. (http://www.atthewell.com.au/article/change-is-in-the-air)
As 195 nations gather in Paris to agree on measures to limit climate change, I was absolutely buoyed to read that the leading tech billionaires (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson etc) have formed the Breakthrough Energy Coalition to invest in early stage clean energy companies. At this moment I feel more optimistic about the future of life on Earth than I have done in a very long time.
Climate Change is the most complex challenge ever faced by humankind and in terms of a solution “there are no silver bullets, only silver buckshot”, as Bill McKibben remarked back in 2006. The investment by the new Breakthrough Energy Coalition is big enough to make a difference, and to encourage others to follow suit, but the most difficult challenge around climate change is not a technical one. Sure, we need technology to develop ever more efficient renewable energy sources, and possibly even effective methods to remove excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. However, I have every faith that human innovation will rise to the occasion as it has done when producing all the machines, gadgets and devices that have shaped our development thus far. The real challenge is that tackling climate change effectively relies on the co-operation of everyone everywhere, and unfortunately we have little precedence for that.
What does unanimous human co-operation look like? At first glance it probably looks very much like the conference happening right now in Paris where leaders from across the world are attempting to agree on how to limit global warming. They are not debating the reality of climate change, and they are not debating whether anything needs to be done about it. They are debating the practicalities of climate change mitigation. And maybe we should pause ever so briefly to appreciate what an achievement that in itself is, especially when set in a city so recently shattered by terrorism. And once we have stopped to appreciate the wonder of such co-operation, we then need to hope that all countries will capitalize on this moment and reach an agreement for the common good – not just for those who are alive now, but also for those yet to be born.
And that is the enormous challenge. The likely stalling point for these talks is the reluctance to show leadership. Although governments may wish for the same outcome, they want others to make the greater effort. Highly industrialised countries are too addicted to cheap energy to make significant cuts. Developing countries want to temporarily increase their emissions to enable them to catch up on the fantastic technologies which, until now, have been out of their reach. Australia only produces 1.8% of global emissions, and cites this as one reason to shirk responsibility, despite having almost the highest per capita emissions in the world.
Climate leadership requires governments to take risks for the sake of others who are far away, either geographically or in time. Due to the lag between the release of greenhouse gases and the change in global temperature, those alive today may never personally benefit from emission reductions. Furthermore, even if we never burn another lump of coal or barrel of oil, global warming will continue for some years to come due to carbon dioxide already released. And although I often despair at the lack of foresight of our Prime Minister, and his predecessor, the reality is that he can only do what the country has mandated him to do. And it is in this that we can all have an influence.
As Jews we put Social Justice high on our priority list. We are encouraged to give 10% of our income to Tzedakah. We help the vulnerable within our community and elsewhere. We give food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless. We go to great lengths to protect our young from harm and ensure they are given every opportunity to reach their potential. And therefore we must act on climate change.
Social exclusion has many causes, but as climate change progresses it will have an increasing impact on the vulnerable. Sea level rises will lead to the disappearance of small island states, including many of our ‘neighbours’ in the Pacific, such as Kiribati and Tuvalu. Will Australia be prepared to take in the resulting climate refugees?
Temperature increases and changes in rainfall will reduce crop yields especially in hot, dry regions such as sub-Saharan Africa. And at home here, in Victoria, we can expect further devastating bushfires and severe weather events. If organizations whose purpose it is to help the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the ill or the displaced fail to act on climate change then they are ignoring a major cause.
I could write pages on actions people can take to make their lives more pro-environmental. I could suggest you drive less, recycle more, turn down the air-conditioning, avoid foods containing palm oil. I could ask communal organizations to use fewer disposable plastics, avoid food waste or switch to LED lighting. All these are important and reflect the Jewish Value of ‘Bal Tashchit’ (do not waste), and I certainly encourage people to work towards these on a continuing basis, but one simple action that I believe would have the largest impact right now is to write to Malcolm Turnbull today, and copy in your local member. Tell them you fully support steep cuts to Australian greenhouse gas emissions, cuts to fossil fuel subsidies and investment in renewable energies. Give them the mandate to do the right thing.
At this point in the Jewish year we recall a miracle from long ago, involving oil. Maybe it will take another miracle for the whole world to agree on climate action? But maybe we could all do something to nudge that miracle along.