This Sukkot: Consider the Extinction of Animals, Climate Change, & Shiluach Ha’Kan

We leave the comforts of our homes to live in sukkot (huts) to humble ourselves and to reconnect with our existential core in nature. The looming international climate change crisis should be embedded in our consciousness as we dwell outdoors.
Unfortunately, the issue has become demagogued and politicized, to the point of absurdity (a congressman from Arizona boycotted the unique opportunity to hear the Pope speak in front of a joint session because of exhortations about tempering climate change). Yet, it must be acknowledged that climate change is a fact and here to stay. Peer-reviewed scientific journals indicate that more than 97 percent of current climate scientists are unanimous in their position that climate change is caused by humans. The scientific organizations that have publicly endorsed this position include the American Meteorological Society, the National Academy of Sciences (United States), the Geological Society of America, the American Chemical Society, and nearly two hundred international scientific organizations, including the World Health Organization, the World Meteorological Association, and the World Forestry Congress; worldwide, the scientific consensus on this resolute.
One of the tragic impacts of surface temperature increase is the potential extinction of manifold animal species. A majority of scientists believe the earth is now experiencing the sixth mass extinction in Earth's history, with extinctions occurring at 1,000 to 10,000 times the normal expected rate. While previous extinctions were caused by asteroids or volcanic eruption, nearly all of this mass extinction is being caused by human activity, including climate change. Some species, such as polar bears threatened due to the melting of Arctic sea ice, have long been recognized as endangered. However, diminutive animals are also threatened. The American pika (an animal that resembles a small rabbit) may become extinct solely due to global warming, as it lives only high up on mountains with cool and moist climates. As Earth warms, it will become extinct. Here are some other examples of the looming possibility of extinction:
  • About a third of about 6,300 species of amphibians face extinction due to their sensitivity to climate change, a rate that is 25,000 to more than 45,000 times greater than what would normally be expected.
  • It is estimated that about half of all mammal species—along with humans, they include gorillas, monkeys, and lemurs—are at risk of extinction from loss of habitat and climate change.
  • A World Wildlife Fund report, as analyzed by the Zoological Society of London, of more than 5,800 fish populations in the world's oceans concluded that the number of fish in the world's oceans has declined by nearly 50 percent since 1970, due to overfishing but also to rising ocean water temperatures due to global warming. In North America, the American Fisheries Society estimates that 700 species of fish are in danger of extinction, representing nearly 40 percent of all fish.
  • Trees are not exempt from climate change and the increasing extremes in weather. During the current four-year drought in California, about twelve million trees have died, largely from pests taking advantage of trees weakened from lack of water. Incredibly, even the massive, seemingly invulnerable Sequoia trees, some of which have lived for several millennia, are showing unprecedented stress, including shedding leaves much earlier than usual.
As Jews, it is a sacred duty to reverse these terrifying trends. Indeed, there is a unique mitzvah addressing this situation of human-caused animal extinction. The Torah teaches that one must shoo away a mother bird before approaching her young (Shiluach ha’kan). Rabbeinu Bachya (commentary on Deuteronomy 22:7), Ralbag (ibid.), and the Sefer HaChinuch (#545) explain that the reason for this mitzvah is to prevent actions or even the perception of actions that might lead to the extinction of a species. The mother bird is to be left alone so she can reproduce offspring. To destroy both the mother bird and her kin is to wipe out a section of creation and that is deemed too destructive. While Jewish law allowed for the killing of animals in prescribed situations, it also mandated the humility and the compassion to protect all creatures and honor all in living existence that we encounter.
Thus it is our moral obligation to protect the beautiful Earth that we have inherited. To pollute it is to destroy its sanctity, to plunder it without forethought is folly. This Sukkot, may we be channel our inspired encounter with nature to address this most crucial issue of our time.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of nine books on Jewish ethics.