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October 8, 2015 | 25th Tishrei 5776
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Background Information

Learn the basics of climate change, including history, related Jewish values and even some programmatic ideas.

As heirs to a tradition of stewardship rooted in the Book of Genesis that teaches us to be partners in the ongoing work of Creation, we as Jews cannot accept the escalating destruction of our environment and its effect on human health and livelihood. We have a sacred duty to raise awareness and take action to alleviate environmental degradation and the suffering that it causes and will continue to cause for future generations.

The first step towards a healthier, greener planet is an educated community that understands the issue and is empowered to act on this knowledge. Use this primer to learn the basics on climate change and what you can do about it.

What is Climate Change?
The scientific community has reached a strong consensus regarding the science of global climate change. The world is undoubtedly warming, and the effects are already being seen in terms of increased droughts, floods, disease and natural disasters. These changes and their subsequent effects result primarily from the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from human activities. As a result of fossil fuel combustion and changes in land use, such as deforestation, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have increased by more than 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is currently at a level of 380-385 parts per million (ppm), the highest concentration in the past 160,000 years.

What Happened to “Global Warming”?
The increase in the earth’s average temperature is often referred to as “global warming.” But since temperatures will not increase everywhere on the planet, and because higher temperatures are not be the only effect of increased pollutants in the atmosphere, many scientists and environmentalists now prefer to use the broader term “climate change.” The term global warming does not imply the other effects of climate change, such as droughts, floods, and increasingly severe natural disasters. Climate change refers to a wide range of consequences that are predicted to occur as a result of our persistent increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Future Impacts and the Global Poor
Over the next 100 years, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC) predicts that increasing global temperatures could raise sea levels significantly, causing floods that could displace tens of millions of people in low-lying areas such as China’s Pearl River Delta, much of Bangladesh, densely populated areas of Egypt, and many small island nations. Malaria and other infectious diseases could spread to areas that have never experienced them before due to increased flying ranges for mosquitoes. Droughts could strike farmlands, exacerbating world hunger.

While the world’s wealthiest nations are most responsible for climate change, communities and nations that are poor, agriculturally marginal, and lacking adequate health infrastructures will be most severely impacted and least able to adapt. Subsistence farmers are vulnerable to changing rainfall patterns that may make their land infertile. Slum-dwellers in coastal areas or in floodplains are least able to relocate to avoid chronic flooding. Undeveloped areas are least able to prevent the spread of infectious disease.

Human Influence and American Responsibility
In its most recent report, the UN International Panel on Climate Change concluded that the evidence for climate change is “unequivocal” and that human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, is “very likely” (this is scientific language for near certainty) the cause.

While the United States will be better able to counteract the negative effects of climate change than developing nations, it will not be immune from those effects. Current projections point to a global increase of 2.0°F to 11.5°F (1.1°C to 6.4°C) by 2100, with warming in the U.S. expected to be even higher. Places like South Florida, coastal Massachusetts and California, the Gulf Coast, and even Manhattan Island, are likely to experience severe flooding as a result of sea level rises.

Though it is home to only 4% of the world’s population, the United States uses 25% of the world’s oil supply, and produces about 25% of global carbon dioxide emissions. The U.S. joins China, Russia and Japan at the top of the list of CO2-emitting nations, and U.S. cars emit more CO2 than all but these three nations. At the same time, this evidence suggests that there are tremendous economic opportunities available to the United States to lead broad international efforts to meet the climate challenge.

The Clean Energy Solution
Addressing climate change is no simple task. To protect ourselves, our economy and our land from the adverse effects of climate change, we must dramatically reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. To achieve this goal we must fundamentally transform the way we power our global economy. This demands shifting away from a century’s legacy of unrestrained fossil fuel use and its associated emissions in pursuit of more efficient and renewable sources of energy. Such a transformation will require society to engage in a concerted effort, over the short- and long-term, to seek out opportunities and design actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Many are beginning to see the transition from the old ways of fossil fuels to a new clean energy economy based on renewable sources as the solution to both the environmental crisis and the economic and security challenges we currently face. While renewable energy provided just over 10% of domestically-produced U.S. energy in the first half of 2008, the potential for expansion of the renewable energy sector is, with appropriate investment, nearly limitless. The most widely used renewable energy sources include:

  • Wind Power: Wind energy uses windmills to capture the kinetic energy existing in moving air. It is perhaps the cleanest energy source there is. In fact, one standard wind turbine generator would prevent the emissions of millions of tons of carbon dioxide annually. Over half of the states in the U.S. have access to power created by wind, and the Department of Energy estimates that North Dakota, Kansas and Texas alone have enough potential wind energy to satisfy national electricity needs.

  • Solar Energy: Solar energy uses semiconductor material to convert sunlight into electric currents. Although solar energy only provides 0.15% of the world’s power and less than 1% of U.S. energy, experts believe that sunlight has the potential to supply 5,000 times as much energy as the world currently consumes. Solar energy is clean and developing techniques for capture and storage ensures that energy can be provided even on sunless days.

  • Geothermal Energy: Geothermal energy captures the heat from the inside of the earth and converts it to power. Engineers drill into the earth’s crust and extract extremely hot water and steam which travel up pipes and turn turbines to create electricity. Geothermal energy is extremely effective but only in areas where it is possible to extract the steam (i.e., in the western part of the United States). In fact, geothermal energy is the number one provider of heat to Iceland. Geothermal energy produces virtually no air pollution and has minimal emissions.

  • Biofuels: Biofuels are defined as fuels made from organic materials, as opposed to those derived from oil and coal sources. The most common biofuel in the U.S. is corn-based ethanol. Unfortunately, corn based ethanol takes a large amount of energy to produce, and much of that energy comes from the burning of coal. Other biofuels, like cellulosic ethanol –made from switchgrass or other non-food crops—are more environmentally friendly. Sugar based ethanol, for example has eight times the energy potential of corn ethanol.

Three Terms to Know Before You Start

CO2: Carbon Dioxide is the greenhouse gas that is most prominent in our atmosphere. Humans and other living organisms breathe out carbon dioxide and plants use it for photosynthesis. Today, however, CO2 is also released at unprecedented rates due to the burning of fossil fuels by power plants, factories, homes, businesses and automobiles. Since the Industrial Revolution, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by over 30%.

Carbon Footprint: The impact each individual (or synagogue) has on the environment in terms of waste, CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the average flight from Washington, DC to Chicago, IL has a carbon footprint of roughly 440 pounds of CO2. Use this web calculator to calculate your carbon footprint.

Greening: Conventional term for making something or some place more ecologically responsible. Greening congregations is the process by which we hope to build or retrofit our synagogues to minimize waste, maximize conservation and energy efficiency and implement habits that encourage congregants to interact with the earth in an ecologically-friendly manner.

More Climate Change Basics:

With special thanks to Rachel Cohen at the Religious Action Center, we acknowledge the following resources used to develop this background information:


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