How We All Can Help Protect the Land for Future Generations
Although this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, focuses primarily on Joseph, the opening phrase – Jacob now settled in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan – suggests Jacob’s hope to settle in the land of his fathers in peace, without fear of having to uproot and wander like the prior generation. Yet we know that this opening line is a mere hope, not reality. Soon we will read of a famine in the land and the need, once again, to uproot and wander.
The hope of settling on the land free of strife and contention is a dream that many have had throughout history. Sometimes that dream is disrupted by the hands of tyrants and enemies, and sometimes by the changing nature of our climate brought on by the cruel hands of society. As we set out to address climate change, we need to firmly acknowledge the role that human beings have played in bringing this disruption about. Climate change, which causes extreme weather events and crop disruption, is making it difficult for many communities to sustain themselves from the land. Will our children and grandchildren be able to settle in their land or will the effects of climate change cause them to wander as did our ancestor Jacob?
This week, heads of states, scientists, students, religious leaders, regional and local politicians, and climate activists from more than 190 countries have converged in Paris for the COP21 United Nations Climate Conference. For the first time in more than 20 years of U.N. climate negotiations, countries from around the world, including the largest carbon emitters, are formulating a legally binding agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, staving off the worst effects of climate change.
With most of the world’s commitments already in place, we are on target to reach, by the end of the century, a world that is 3.5 degrees Celsius warmer than it is now. Although this warming is dangerous and warrants attention, it is still far above the 2 degrees C U.N. agreed upon target needed to avert an unacceptable level of human suffering and climate tipping points. So is this the climate justice activists and scientists the world over have been championing?
Far from it.
These commitments, though important, do not go far enough to mitigate the combination of conditions that drastically multiply national security threats and cause untold loss of human life. Among the conditions are the displacement of millions of people from sea level rise, the continued spread of deadly tropical diseases, and the acidification of our oceans and collapse of major fisheries. Others include extensive wildfires and loss of pristine forests and property, severe bleaching of precious coral reefs, which provide the only protein source for more than one billion people, and increased devastation from droughts, floods, and superstorms.
Yet despite the bleak future under this new climatic norm, COP21 United Nations Climate Conference and its anticipated agreement is an undeniable victory in the fight against climate change, and for our communities around the world. It marks the first time our governments have come together to commit to a low carbon world, in an effort to avoid a climate catastrophe. The hundreds of thousands of hours of protests, community engagement, and climate activism have formed a movement that will shape our future for the better – bringing together countries from every side of the globe and from all places on the political spectrum to save our planet and our communities.
Thus, throughout the COP21, Paris symbolizes a rededication to the fight against climate change on a global scale.
But, Paris is just the beginning.
The emission targets may have been set for Paris, but the future of our climate and our world remains uncertain. This conference cannot be the last word in reducing global carbon emissions. Rather, we must continue to raise our voices, calling on world leaders to fight for transparency, enforcement, and equity. Without these tenets, the promised commitments are no better than the dozens of meaningless papers signed before them. We need transparency and enforcement to ensure that every country is meeting its emission responsibilities, and equity to ensure that climate change does not disproportionately impact vulnerable communities.
Most importantly, we need to ensure strong commitments to equity and environmental justice. To do so, we must ask our governments in Paris to support the Green Climate Fund to provide developing nations and the frontline communities with the technological and strategic resources necessary to adapt and mitigate successfully the disastrous effects of climate change. Only then will they be able to evolve into clean, renewably powered societies.
Above all, the Paris conference gives us hope that we will be able to transform our economies and societies into ones that can effectively tackle the greatest threat to future generations, moving us toward a just and equitable world for all.
To do your part, sign the Faithful Call to Address Climate Change and request that U.S. leaders negotiate a binding agreement to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions and enable poor and vulnerable communities to build low carbon and climate-resilient societies.
No matter where we are in the world, may we, like Jacob, settle peacefully in the land, and fight against disruptions to that peace.
Rabbi Joel Thal Simonds, associate program director for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, directs its west coast initiatives and also serves as rabbi of the synagogue at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.
Zack Gold, a Ph.D. student in ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA, holds a B.S. in marine biology with honors from Stanford University. A lifelong member of the Reform Movement, he was active in NFTY So. Cal and participated in the RAC’s L’taken social justice program.