The fires that have been raging through Australia are devastating. And they have been the focus of much discussion about climate change and the need for vigilance, careful planning, and an increased focus on ecological issues. Nonetheless, there are still those who refuse to acknowledge the environmental challenges, and point, for example, to the 24 charges of arson as the real cause for that national disaster. While the criminal charges are serious, and should be prosecuted, the arson numbers are not significantly higher than usual, and it isn’t arson that is driving the ecological problems.
Australia may feel a world away, but the record high temperatures and drought that helped kindle the wildfires there are remarkably similar to our situation here. In 2019, U.S. communities experienced the highest summer temperatures in some 200 years, and wildfires burned more than 4.6 million acres of land. According to government reports, 2019 was the fifth consecutive year in which 10 or more billion-dollar “weather and climate disaster” events affected the United States. And the statistics for 2019 are frightening, with 14 instances of losses exceeding $1 billion, including: three flooding events, eight severe storms, two tropical cyclones, and one wildfire. Some 44 people lost their lives, and the economic impact was significant.
If our elected officials wait for a public crisis like the one blazing in Australia before assessing the impact of observable changes to our natural world rather than responding proactively, we could all be sorry. Instead, we need to do all we can to confront the ecological issues and avoid the divisive politicization of science and environmental concerns.
The threats from the effects of record-high temperatures have a broad reach, from farmers and emergency responders to the elderly and shoppers feeling the pinch in their wallets when produce prices rise. We cannot ignore that reality. Working with local, state, and federal legislators and regulators, and seeking to address ecological issues in a coherent yet sensitive way, we can make a difference for ourselves and generations to come. The protection of our environment doesn’t have to be punitive, and the preservation of our future ecological safety doesn’t have to impose unreasonable constraints. There are, however, reasonable, measured limitations that could help protect us from future harm.
Judaism demands that we take drastic measures to preserve human life. And it is human life that is at risk here. We therefore encourage the addition of environmental issues to our collective Jewish agenda — including concerns about water, air, waste policy, land use, renewable energy — and efforts to mitigate and to adapt to climate change.
These are not uniquely special interest concerns or Jewish concerns. They are issues that affect us all, and require our attention. Our lives depend on it.