Judaism and Science: Contemporary Approaches to Global Climate Change

By Daniel Weber, Ph.D.

It’s official! The climate is changing! At least that is the conclusion of a recent, overwhelming bipartisan vote in Congress.

I state this only partly tongue-in-cheek because while the process of doing and interpreting science should never be subject to a vote of politicians, it does point to a significant convergence of attitudes across this country’s political and cultural spectrum regarding climate change. The stickier questions are do human activities cause these worldwide shifts in climatic patterns and the resulting alterations in ecosystem function, and, if so, how does Judaism construct a moral foundation for action?

The Swedish scientist, Svante Arrhenius, first described the power of increasing levels atmospheric carbon dioxide due to the combustion of coal for energy to raise the earth’s temperature back in 1896. I first learned about the issue of climate change in my college biology classes by studying observations about butterflies native to southern regions of Europe being found in increasing abundance in Central and even Northern Europe. Scientists were beginning to question whether our activities really could be capable of modifying the long-term, large-scale meteorological processes that resulted in such dramatic changes in species distribution. After 40 years of following climate change research, I find it significant that scientists using multiple research approaches reached the same conclusion—humans are indeed the primary force for the observed changes of our climate.

Beyond the commonly known computer models that project what the future world might look like, there are computer models asking what variables best describe the path by which we got to our current environmental status. Using that approach, scientists discovered the single best explanation of current conditions is the rising level of human-produced atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs). Field experiments indicating that increasing exposure to carbon dioxide induces metabolic changes in plants, such as increased toxicity of poison ivy, match field observations of similar changes in plant biochemistry. Beyond the glaciers receding, glacial ice cores, much like tree rings, provide clues about ancient environments. The build-up of carbon dioxide occurs in layers corresponding to the increasing use of fossil fuels during post-Industrial Revolution years. Oceans are becoming more acidic due to the presence of carbonic acid, a product of atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolving in water. All these changes in the balance between the physical environment and the biological communities it supports have profound implications for human health and well-being.

“On the other hand…”, as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” would say, there are suggestions that natural forces such as sun spots or changes in the tilt of earth’s axis best explain the change in climate. Such challenges are a healthy and necessary process in science and mirror the religious tugs-of-war found in our own sacred texts. These hypotheses, however, have been rigorously examined and found to not correlate with or be primary causative factors of the alterations in long-term climate patterns.

Based upon the extensive data in peer-reviewed scientific reports describing human influences on climate and the resultant effects on the health of humans and wildlife, Frank Press, president emeritus of the US National Academy of Sciences and professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote, “Our ability to alter the chemistry of the atmosphere and thereby change global climate now compares with the natural swings in climate found in the geological record extending back in time over millions of years. This is an awesome responsibility because of the profound consequences for humankind and all other living species.” (Nature 451:301-313, 2008) It is useful now to explore whether science and Judaism are partners in a complementary approach to meet the “awesome responsibility” of this environmental challenge. Science is concerned with the fundamental mechanisms of the universe and all its parts. Judaism, however, focuses on the fundamental purpose of creation in general and humanity in particular. Science informs us that current climate alterations are not pre-ordained but a result of modern-day and historical human activity. Judaism provides a path by which we learn to take ownership of the problem and its scientifically derived solutions. That path begins with God giving humanity the capacity to choose, continues with the knowledge that God allows for repentance for our poor choices, and concludes by obligating us to take individual and communal responsibility to do tikkun olam (repair of the world).

The Torah states that we have the capacity to choose: “I’ve put before you life and death, blessing and curse; choose life so you and your offspring would live.” (Deut. 30:15). After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Rabbi Isaac Luria developed a concept, tzimtzum, inwhich the existence of evil in the world is precisely because of that ability to choose. God, he wrote, needed to withdraw a little from the world to provide holy space for humanity, space for each individual to thrive and create. However, God knew that such a withdrawal created the space within which humanity could make poor choices for which there would be consequences. Environmental degradation vs living sustainability is a choice. To drive our car when we could walk, ride a bicycle or take public transportation is a choice. Each choice leads to specific outcomes.

God responds to our choices. After reciting the Shema in our daily prayers, we read from Deut. 11:13-17: “I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late, that you may gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil. I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—you will eat and be satisfied. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is giving to you.” Our choices have environmental consequences—the land suffers because God does not permit the rain to fall on the land if we commit idolatry. It is worthwhile to reflect on what, from a perspective of sustainable living, are the idols of today that would “shut up the skies.”

Judaism, however, does not subscribe to the concept of an uncaring God. The capacity to repent is important in Judaism because without it spiritual growth is not possible. Yet, God’s unyielding response to idolatry seems to be in contradiction to such compassion. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Yerushalmi Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah 57b) provides insight into this dilemma. Our actions, he said, affect the distribution of precipitation not the amount: “If at Rosh Hashanah Israel was worthy, and much rain was decreed, and later they sinned, the amount of rain could not be decreased, for it was already decreed. What does the Holy One Blessed be He do? He spreads the rain over seas, deserts and rivers, so that the land does not benefit from it. If at Rosh Hashanah Israel was unworthy, and little rain was decreed, and later they repent – the amount of rain cannot be increased, for it was already decreed. What does the Holy One Blessed be He do? He brings the rains down and sends wind so that the land may also benefit”. Indeed, climatologists have noted that what we are witnessing today is a massive, worldwide redistribution of precipitation. While the actual science of that process differs significantly from what Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai envisioned, Judaism is in resonance with scientific concept. Our actions, in this case increasing GHGs, have tragic ramifications for the world’s hydrologic cycle and, by extension, sustainable living. Fortunately, each year during the Yamim Noraim we have the capacity to repent. There are consequences to our acts but we can still make amends next time. Science has given us clues as to what to do. Judaism tells us that we have the capacity and responsibility to act.

Given this harmony between Jewish values and scientific knowledge, the stage is set to define our individual and collective responsibility to the environment. What we find is a convergence of approach between science and Judaism. In the field of environmental health, there is a concept called the Precautionary Principle. It is an approach to risk management that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from harm when scientific investigation has found a plausible albeit inconclusive risk. Policy makers use this principle to justify discretionary decisions in situations where there is the possibility of harm to the public. If further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result, the principle states that revisiting those policies is warranted.

We see a parallel concept to the Precautionary Principle in Judaism. Two sources shed light on the Jewish perspective. The first is the law of the parapet found in Deut. 22:8: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” Second, in the Shulkhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah (116:5), we find that “…one should avoid all things that lead to danger because a danger to life is stricter than a prohibition. One should be more concerned about a possible danger to life than a possible prohibition. Therefore, the Sages prohibited one to walk in a place of danger such as a leaning wall for fear of collapse or alone at night for fear of robbers.” There is no 100% guarantee in any of these cases that these events will happen but given the right circumstances there is a high degree of probability that dangerous outcomes could occur. Therefore, one is obligated to take precautionary action to avoid the danger.

While science does not always guarantee specific outcomes, it can provide reasonable probabilities based on knowledge of the systems being studied. We know that the climate is changing due to human activity. Science tells us that if we don’t act now, it is likely that we will face enormous costs in the years to come as expressed by decreased quality of health, increased social instability and damaged infrastructure. Judaism tells us that it is a moral imperative to ensure safety and health even if we don’t know for sure all possible outcomes.

In developing an action plan to face the challenges of climate change based on the precautionary principle and its Jewish corollary, one might ask if it matters whether I am the sole source or just one person among many causing the problem. Such a concern has bearing on how we approach solutions to global climate change. The Talmud (Tosefot, Bava Batra 23a) develops a concept of Ein Hazakah l’Nezikin, damages for which a presumptive right (hazakah) to cause them can never be established. Specific damages caused by one individual (comparable to the ecologist’s concept of point source pollution, defined as a specific, identifiable source of environmental contaminants such as carbon emissions) are prohibited even if one’s neighbors do not complain, since they may not have knowledge of the damage being done to them. This is not so outrageous a premise. Today, each of us is constantly being exposed to chemicals but until science has provided us with information about their dangers we do not know enough to worry. Yet from this perspective, the chemical manufacturer still would be liable because doing what it knows to be harmful is to “put a stumbling block before the blind.” (Lev. 19:14). How much more so should one be obligated to take action when the public does have access to data that strongly demonstrates that anthropogenic GHGs cause harm?

What if, however, I am only one of many doing damage? Does it really matter what I do if it only causes a small percentage of the total harm? One of my favorite pieces of scientific trivia is a study on air pollution conducted in Jerusalem that found levels of nitrous oxides from vehicle exhausts dropped to almost zero one day every week—Shabbat. Life in Israel is teaching us that the accumulation of many small but similar individual actions does have profound effects on our environment. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the greatest halachic authorities of the 20th century, concurred. He wrote (Iggeret Moshe, Hoshen Mishpat), “And even though one person smoking in a large room such as a Beit Midrash would not by himself cause damage, nevertheless, since each smoker knows that many other people are smoking, he knows that his smoke is causing damage.” The concept holds true for any source of pollution, including carbon emissions from the cars we individually drive to the collective demand of electricity produced by fossil fuels. Once we know beyond reasonable doubt that our individual actions are part of a larger set of similar actions that is causing harm, it becomes a moral imperative to change our actions. As a Jew, how I heat and cool my own, private dwelling is indeed a matter of communal and environmental concern.

Rabbi Saul Berman who teaches Jewish Law and Contemporary Social and Political Issues at Yeshiva University developed this idea further. He noted that while Judaism does not teach that we are required to save the earth, we are required to save humanity. We nevertheless are required to be good stewards of the earth because ultimately that is how we shall save ourselves. Rabbi Berman wrote that there are two steps to this process. The first step, Hatzalah (rescue), parallels Rabbi Feinstein’s concept of dealing with immediate environmental concerns and is based on the principle we must not stand idly by when wrongs are committed (Lev. 19:16). When God’s property is being destroyed, we must act to preserve it. Now. The second step, Anavah (humility), is the long-term re-ordering of our values to be in harmony with the environment. This crucial step goes beyond Rabbi Feinstein’s opinion and obligates us to internalize fundamental principles of living in concert with nature’s rhythms.

We must learn to live sustainably or the systems upon which all life depends will fail. After the Flood, God promised to never again destroy the world. Nothing, however, was said about our capacity to do so. That decision was left in our hands.


Originally posted at the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle http://www.jewishchronicle.org/article.php?article_id=15964

Daniel Weber, PhD is a Senior Scientist at the UW-Milwaukee Children’s Environmental Health Sciences Core Center, Chair of the Science and Technology Advisory Board of Canfei Nesharim: Sustainable Living Inspired by Torah, Board member of Wisconsin Interfaith Power & Light, a 2014-2015 GreenFaith Fellow, and committee member of Jewish Wisconsin Initiative for a Sustainable Environment (J-WISE, a project of the Coalition for Jewish Learning, the educational arm of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation).