Climate change is here. And not just here as in “affecting someone else in a faraway place that doesn’t really concern us.” No, it is right here, in our great Pacific Northwest, burning our forests every summer — making our air barely breathable — and killing our livestock in the winter. The Seattle Times had a recent article reporting the Yakima Valley deaths of 1,850 cows from last month’s blizzard. The headline read: “What next? Biblical plagues?” Yes, indeed.
As a rabbi, I know a few things about biblical plagues. Many rabbinic commentators see the Ten Plagues in the Book of Exodus as a counter to God’s Ten Pronouncements in the Creation story of the first chapter of Genesis. The 9th plague of “Darkness,” for example, comes to undo God uttering: “Let there be light.”
In the near future we will see not just more biblical plagues like “hail” or “blight,” but also — as in the Exodus narrative — more swarming insects (migrating northward) and the many diseases they will bring.
If nothing is done today, the plagues brought upon us by climate change — what, in biblical interpretation, the rabbis saw as the unraveling of Creation — will become just that for us as well. If warming trends continue, plagues of climate change will make our planet uninhabitable by the end of the century, bringing pain and suffering over the decades ahead.
We are talking about the lifespan of today’s teenagers. Which is why we have seen them demonstrating. You think I’m an alarmist? Look up Jem Bendell (“Deep Adaptation”) and David Wallace Wells (“The Uninhabitable Earth.”)
Make no mistake, we are now paying for the havoc we — western industrial nations — have wreaked upon the world over the past 200 years. We are responsible; not the people escaping El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala, not those fleeing Syria or Afghanistan, nor those leaving Eritrea, Somalia or Sudan trying to make their way north because climate change is bringing war, famine, economic collapse and violence to their countries. We, who have benefited most from what we have called “progress,” have blindly sought to pursue our happiness at the expense of others. We became addicted materialists in deep denial. But denial is a luxury we can no longer afford.
As 12-steppers will tell you, breaking free from addiction means first recognizing that we are addicted and seeing the damage that our addiction has caused. Any success in trying to contain climate change must start there. Then we make amends. Making amends is not just saying “I’m sorry” to those we have hurt — although that’s important. It is about taking responsibility and making reparations, taking concrete action to heal the wounds we have inflicted and change our ways.
Changing our ways when it comes to climate change includes the baby step of last week’s approval of clean-fuels legislation by the Washington State House, for example. The bill aims at lowering the carbon emission from transportation fuels. Next up is phasing out the use of hydrofluorocarbons and fossil fuels for power generation, as well as increasing the number of electric vehicles on our roads.
We need to keep up the pressure to enact other such life-saving policies. That means collective political engagement, along with our individual efforts, to achieve the most sweeping and impactful changes. Making amends by taking concrete action means welcoming climate refugees to our country instead of building a wall to keep them out. One doesn’t fight poverty by building more gated communities for the wealthy. Climate action now is more than a value-proposition for job-creation in a future economy.
It is a moral imperative of biblical proportion.
Olivier BenHaim is the Rabbi of Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue in Seattle.
Read the full March 20 - 26 issue.
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