An Open Letter to Rabbis on Countering Climate Change

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Richard H. Schwartz

(Courtesy)

In my 88 years, I have had many positive interactions with rabbis. I have been impressed with their inquisitiveness, thoughtfulness and openness to new ways to interpret and understand our Jewish scriptures. It is because of these and other positive attributes that I have written this open letter appealing to you and other rabbis to come out very strongly against a very common practice in the Jewish community (and others) that violates basic Jewish teachings and is the main reason the world is rapidly approaching a climate catastrophe.

Please consider:

1. Climate experts have issued increasingly dire warnings that the world is rapidly approaching irreversible tipping points. If it has not happened already, in the near future self-reinforcing positive feedback loops (vicious cycles) will cause unstoppable, accelerating climate change. Widespread, major actions are urgently needed to avoid catastrophe.

2. An essential, but not alone sufficient, change is a broad, society-wide shift towards plant-based diets. This would reduce both greenhouse gas emissions as well as atmospheric carbon dioxide.

With the future of humanity so much at stake, it is urgent that you help increase awareness of the above two points. As Mordechai exclaimed to Queen Esther, when the Jews of Persia were in great danger, “Perhaps you were put into your present position for just such a purpose.” As an added incentive, note that plant-based diets are most consistent with basic Jewish teachings on taking care of our health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources and helping hungry people.

To help you increase awareness of the urgency of the situation and the need to rapidly make positive changes, consider the following analyses:

Climate scientists have issued increasingly dire warnings about the climate threats. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization composed of climate experts from many countries, warned that “unprecedented changes” were needed by 2030 for the world to have a chance to avert a climate catastrophe. Despite that warning, carbon-dioxide levels continue to increase steadily. Indeed, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres stated that the climate situation is a “Code Red for Humanity” and “delay means death.”

Facts on the ground reinforce the warnings. The last eight years were the hottest since 1880, when climatologists started to record worldwide temperatures. There has been rapid melting of glaciers, Arctic ice sheets and permafrost. Sea levels are rising rapidly with “sunny day” flooding in some coastal cities. The year 2022 continued a trend of increased frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms and floods, with many records being broken.

As devastating as recent climate events have been, prospects for the future are even more frightening. Climate scientists project increasing temperatures and atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels. They fear that self-reinforcing positive feedback loops may soon cause the world to reach an irreversible tipping point, causing climate change to spin out of control with disastrous consequences.

Clearly, averting a climate catastrophe must become a central focus for civilization. There are many ways we can reduce our “carbon footprints,” many of which are quite simple and painless. For example, we need to shift from fossil fuels to more environmentally-friendly energy sources, such as solar and wind energy. We need more efficient vehicles, more recycling and more composting. And, we need to stop population growth, which might require educating and empowering women.

As president emeritus of Jewish Veg and author of “Vegan Revolution: Saving Our World, Revitalizing Judaism,” I want to stress that there is one approach that has by far the greatest potential to avert a climate catastrophe. A society-wide shift towards plant-based diets is the only approach that both significantly reduces greenhouse-gas emissions and atmospheric CO2. Such a shift would reduce CO2 emissions by several means, and it would also result in far fewer farmed animals emitting methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. It also has the potential to dramatically reduce atmospheric CO2 by permitting reforestation of land that is currently being used for grazing and raising feed crops for animals. Over one-third of the world’s ice-free land is currently used for this purpose. There once were 6 trillion trees in the world, but that number has been halved to 3 trillion, largely due to animal agriculture. A major consequence is that atmospheric CO2, which was 285 parts per million (ppm) before the industrial revolution, has increased to about 420 ppm, well above the 350 ppm that climate experts believe is a threshold level for safety. Reforestation would make it possible to reduce atmospheric CO2 to this safer level.

Unfortunately, the opposite is happening. It was recently reported that deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest reached a new record.” We are literally eating our way towards extinction.

So I am appealing to you to speak out and help increase awareness of the urgency of shifts to plant-based diets in order to avert a climate catastrophe and help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path. This is essential towards leaving future generations with a hospitable, sustainable world.

Obtaining a society-wide shift to plant-based diets may seem like an impossible dream, but there are several factors that increase its likelihood:

1. There is an increasing abundance of plant-based substitutes with the appearance, texture, and taste so close to those of meat and other animal products that even long-time meat-eaters can’t tell the difference.

2. In addition to greatly reducing climate threats, shifts to plant-based diets would also significantly reduce heart disease, strokes, several forms of cancer and other life-threatening diseases; threats of future pandemics; the current massive mistreatment of farmed animals; deforestation, soil erosion, air and water pollution; rapid species losses; and other environmental dangers; and depletion of scarce land, water, fuel and other resources.

3. As they notice many rabbis speaking out about the issues, clergy of other religions will likely join the campaign.

As you ponder the above material, please consider: There is no planet B. Nor is there an effective Plan B.

Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at the College of Staten Island, N.Y., and author of a number of books on vegetarianism.

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