Of climate, Torah and shmita

As the Land of Israel enjoys a shmita year of rest, Simhat Torah allows us to take a critical look at how we might be able to positively affect ever-encroaching climate change.

Yosef Abramowitz poses with one of the Green Globes which were scattered around the capital last year. (photo credit: COURTESY ENERGIYA GLOBAL)
Yosef Abramowitz poses with one of the Green Globes which were scattered around the capital last year.
‘After creating the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: ‘Look at My works! See how beautiful they are, how excellent! For your sake, I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world – for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.’” (Midrash Ecclesiastes Raba 7:13) A month after 400,000 people marched in New York, and around 2,000 other climate demonstrations took place worldwide in advance of the UN Climate Summit, Jews return to our sources and roll back to the beginning of our story.
Our journey begins again with the majesty of creation, the transformation in Eden and to Noah, and God’s near destruction of the world. These universal stories with timeless lessons brought together the large multi-faith contingents who marched together in New York to save the planet yet again from rising waters.
This year is different from all past ones, for it is the last observance of shmita – the sabbatical year for the environment – before extreme climate change becomes irreversible. Price- WaterhouseCoopers has just released its latest Low Carbon Economy Index, with the damning news that the major economies are falling further and further behind meeting their carbon reduction goals.
Israel, which has much to offer the world on climate change, was distracted this summer by Operation Protective Edge and did not prepare sufficiently for the UN Climate Summit. While most countries sent their prime ministers and presidents to represent them, Israel fielded Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz. Most major democracies today also have senior climate advisers to their foreign ministers; Israel does not. Great Britain fields 80 climate officers throughout its embassies worldwide and France is about to do the same. It is time for Israel to name a senior climate adviser and integrate a climate plan into its foreign policy.
Positioning Israel in the international arena as a positive player against climate change is not only in our national interest, it is a global Jewish imperative.
The liturgy we just read for the Days of Awe was haunting: “Who will live; and who will die?” Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, which killed more than 6,300 people 10 months ago and made another two million people homeless, was super-charged by the warming waters of the Indian Ocean and the higher sea levels due to the melting of the ice caps. Who by water? The severity of the droughts across sub-Saharan Africa threatens millions of lives. Who by thirst? And even California is suffering its worst water shortages and wildfires.
Who by fire? The economic devastation alone of climate change – prices for water, food and energy will go up for billions of people – coupled with the unprecedented loss of human life, is like no other physical and moral challenge that humanity has ever faced.
Israel is uniquely suited to provide leadership on this issue. We are converting our coal-fired plants to natural gas, cutting power plant emissions by half.
Start-Up Nation is innovating when it comes to energy storage, a prerequisite for using solar power at night. While we failed with our first attempt at electric vehicles, there are lessons to be learned to help economies make the transition from gasoline in transportation to a cleaner electric future. And we are expert at risk management, which enables us to develop renewable energy projects in Africa and other remote locations.
Our own solar program, however, has been frozen for two years, and most solar energy companies have either left the country or folded since the government has not approved new solar quotas.
Within the Torah is the secret to beating climate change. If for one day each week every world religion and every country would celebrate Shabbat the way the Jewish people do, it could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1/7th, at least from transportation and industry. A 1/7th reduction in carbon emissions would bring the earth back into balance. During this year of shmita, it would be appropriate to promote a true day of rest each week worldwide when the generators and engines would fall silent.
Last month, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and 50 other mainstream foundations announced they were planning to divest from oil and coal and instead invest in green energy. Jewish federation and foundation endowments, with total assets of roughly $60 billion, should this shmita year divest from all carbon-intensive businesses, like oil, gas, and coal companies. Every Jewish institution and family can calculate their carbon footprint and offset it by planting trees via the Jewish National Fund or other carbon offset programs.
Nigel Savage, of Hazon, challenges us to become the first carbon-neutral people on the planet.
And finally, the Jewish people can offer hope. We are an ancient biblical people who have miraculously returned to our homeland after 2,000 years. We have overcome incredible odds and rejuvenated our people and our land, bringing back to life the language of the Torah.
Recent international conferences meant to fight climate change are speaking more and more about how to only mitigate the negative impact of climate change. With the exception of Sir David King, climate adviser to the British foreign secretary, and a handful of Jewish energy pioneers, few believe we can win the ultimate climate battle and that defeat is inevitable.
Yet those of us who had the good fortune to grow up in the Soviet Jewry movement are very familiar with the area in front of the United Nations. We know what it means to conduct and win an unprecedented global, ethical campaign. We know how miraculous it is that we are still reading each week an ancient scroll that has previously launched ethical revolutions across several religions. The Jewish people is at its best when we represent the value of hope in history.
This is our gift; this is our responsibility.
And when it comes to climate change, time is running out.
Named by CNN as one of the six leading Green Pioneers on the planet, Yosef I.Abramowitz is a co-founder of the solar industry in the State of Israel and serves as CEO of Energiya Global Capital, a Jerusalem- based developer building solar fields in Africa and elsewhere. He can be followed on twitter @kaptainsunshine.