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April 16, 2014 | 16th Nisan 5774

Climate Change and Energy

Submitted by the Commission on Social Action to the Union for Reform Judaism’s 70th General Assembly

Jewish tradition emphasizes that human dominion over nature does not provide a license to abuse the environment; rather we are called to “till and tend” God’s Earth (Genesis 2:15), and reminded in the Midrash that if we fail to do so, there will be nobody after us to repair our damage (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13). We are also repeatedly commanded to care for the poorest and most vulnerable among us; this means ensuring adequate access to basic resources and a healthy environment for all people, including marginalized communities at home and throughout the world.

For more than forty years the Reform Movement has advocated in defense of our environment and all those species — from the smallest creatures to humankind itself — that rely on our shared natural habitat and resources for survival. Since our 1965 Resolution on Conservation and Development of Natural Resources, we have spoken out for cleaner air, water, and land by decrying toxic waste, fighting pollution, and calling on our synagogues and congregants to make wise use of limited natural resources in our personal and communal lives.  Greening Reform Judaism, a new URJ web initiative (www.urj.org/green), provides our congregations and congregants with the resources, including Jewish texts, green building guides, and examples of green synagogue success stories, to effectively lead the way to a more environmentally sustainable Jewish community.  The URJ is also central to the advocacy and programmatic work of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), the umbrella group representing scores of national and regional Jewish organizations committed to environmental protection and energy conservation, including its new Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign to transform the way the Jewish community views energy and environmental issues and make a meaningful and unique contribution to the global effort to confront climate change.

We have long understood the need for comprehensive and progressive energy policies that protect all people and increase our national security and that of our allies. In 1978, the URJ Board of Trustees declared that, “the priorities of a national energy policy should be the conservation and development of renewable alternative resources” and that “a comprehensive national energy program must be spearheaded by appropriate and responsible government policy.” At the same time, we have repeatedly expressed caution about the expansion of nuclear power, as in our 1991 Resolution on a New North American Energy Strategy which, “reaffirm[s] our opposition to the further expansion of nuclear energy until the unanswered questions regarding safety and disposal of nuclear wastes are satisfactorily resolved.”

We now face the unprecedented challenge of climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions, and the need for serious and urgent action on this issue has never been clearer. This growing threat, along with our rapidly decreasing supply of fossil fuels, further illustrates the need for strong energy and environmental policies at every level.  The greenhouse gas emissions that cause global climate change have real costs for our health and our environment, and should be priced and limited accordingly. When we recognize this fact, we can take steps that both protect our planet and ensure increased access to affordable, reliable, and clean energy. While there are many potential ways to achieve these goals, the two most prominent policy options under consideration today are a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions and a direct tax on high-carbon energy sources.

A cap-and-trade system sets a limit on national greenhouse gas emissions and brings emissions levels down over time by requiring power plants and other larger polluters to obtain permits for their emissions. The sale and trade of permits on a ‘carbon market’ provides a financial incentive to reduce emissions and generates revenue for developing clean energy, helping consumers adjust to short-term changes in energy costs, adapting to climate change effects, and other needs. A cap-and-trade system fixes the national level of permissible carbon emissions and lets the actors on the carbon market decide the value of these emissions. A key question is whether the government, as overseer of the carbon market, should sell permits to emitters or distribute them for free; this is the “auction vs. allocation” debate. Those who advocate for the sale of permits hold that this process is necessary to generate revenue to support the initiatives noted above and that the free allocation of emissions permits will result in windfall profits to utility companies.  Others contend that freely providing permits to fossil-fuel intensive industries and electric companies, at least in the early years of a cap and trade program, is necessary to avoid a spike in energy prices among electric companies that could potentially be passed along to consumers.

In contrast to a cap and trade system, a carbon tax fixes the cost of emissions by adding a pre-determined tax to each unit of high-carbon energy produced, to compensate for the environmental and health costs of greenhouse gas emissions. Under a carbon tax system the price of emissions is fixed and energy producers and consumers decide how much carbon they are willing to pay to emit.

Our community need not choose between these options; rather, our priority must be to support well-constructed policies designed to reduce emissions as quickly as possible, speed the transition to clean energy sources, and protect vulnerable populations during this transition.

Climate change is fundamentally a social justice issue that marries our mandate to be good stewards of the earth with our call to care for the least among us. The vulnerable developing nations that contribute the least to climate change will be among the first to feel its effects, and many Pacific Island and African nations are already experiencing impacts in the form of droughts, natural disasters, and changing agricultural patterns. As the largest historical producer of greenhouse gas emissions, the United States is responsible for leading the way to global solutions.

We must also ensure that low- and moderate-income individuals and families, minority communities, and other populations particularly vulnerable to both environmental degradation and volatile energy prices and economic transitions, do not bear a disproportionate burden from either the effects of climate change or the effects of policies designed to shape energy choices. Well-crafted climate and energy policies can protect these communities and create opportunities for those in need by creating good-paying “green” jobs in innovative industries including the manufacture and distribution of energy from clean, renewable sources, weatherization of homes, businesses, and government buildings, and environmental health and education.

We must put our world on the path to a sustainable future built on clean energy. The current political climate makes the prospect for progress more tangible than ever before. We believe that responding to climate change is an urgent, moral and spiritual issue and it has never been more critical to make the faith community’s voice heard.

THEREFORE, the Union for Reform Judaism resolves to:

  1. Support U.S. and Canadian domestic climate and energy policies that:
    1. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions through properly constructed governmental policies — such as cap-and-trade, a carbon tax or other methods to achieve these ends — that ensure that the price of energy reflects its true costs, including costs to our environment;
    2. Encourage the sale of carbon permits, rather than their free allocation (if a cap-and-trade system is adopted), to ensure that polluters pay for their emissions and that there is a funding source for investment in renewable energy development, green jobs training programs, and protection of the vulnerable at home and abroad from climate change effects;
    3. Increase energy independence through long-term development of clean, safe renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar power through appropriate incentives and new regulatory policies;
    4. Include programs to help those whose short-term economic security may be affected by climate and energy policies that speed the transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy, including assistance to low- and moderate-income people to compensate for proportionately larger expenses for electricity, fuel, and transportation; training and retraining programs to prepare current employees in fossil-fuel-dependent industries and the future workforce for green jobs in the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors; and economic transition assistance for coal miners and other affected workers;
    5. Provide sufficient funding – in addition to existing international aid and development programs – for international adaptation programs to assist the most vulnerable developing nations as they confront the inevitable impacts of climate change; and
    6. Explore additional sources of energy, including the benefits, safety and security concerns of nuclear power.
  2. Urge the U.S. and Canadian governments to work cooperatively with other nations to address climate change by participating and playing a leading role in international bodies, treaties, protocols, and conferences (especially the December 2009 Copenhagen conference) that promote sustainable responses to climate change, including:
    1. Protecting tropical forests and other carbon-absorbing ecosystems around the world through sustainable development of forests and other natural resources;
    2. Investing in global development and dissemination of clean energy technologies; and
    3. Responding to climate change impacts throughout the world with a focus on adaptation efforts in the most vulnerable nations and communities.
  3. Urge our Movement and its members to act in ways that reflect our belief in the need for immediate action on this issue by:
    1. Encouraging congregations, URJ camps, and other arms of the Reform Movement to engage in concerted conservation efforts, as outlined in the URJ’s Greening Reform Judaism Initiative (www.urj.org/green), to reduce energy and other resource consumption and use renewable energy in their facilities, programs, and practices including plans for future construction, expansion, and remodeling;
    2. Encouraging congregants to raise awareness of climate change and energy issues within the Jewish community, and take action toward integrating an ethic of environmental stewardship into every aspect of Jewish life;
    3. Encouraging all individuals to engage with their local communities in promoting stewardship through sustainable practices and policies; and
    4. Encouraging the URJ and its partner institutions to support these efforts by providing educational resources and facilitating the creation of networks of individuals and communities dedicated to advancing climate and energy solutions, including using the resources and supporting the programmatic work of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and its new Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign.

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