It’s now 2020, and the forecast for the following decade is cloudy with a chance of calamity. According to the United Nations, the world has until 2030 to cut greenhouse gas emissions down at least half those of 2010. This would effectively limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, reaching the more ambitious objective of the Paris Agreement.
Shouldn’t this, in particular, be the moment when governments finally rise to the occasion and decide to confront climate catastrophe? In a more sensible world, the burning of Australia would be an unambiguous crossroads, a historical turning point. After all, it’s exactly the sort of disaster and tragedy that scientists forewarned us to anticipate if we didn’t promptly take measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions. In 2008, an Australian report revealed that global warming would cause the nation’s fire season to start sooner, last longer, and be much more intense. This was, beginning in 2020.
But unfortunately, we don’t live in a sensible world. We remain, Australia’s government included, unfaltering as the promise of an environmental Eden decays into a hellfire—literally. Daunting as the problem may be, millions of people still don’t accept the premise of its existence. Anti-environmentalist media, specifically the Murdoch Empire, have made every effort to spread misinformation, hoping to place the blame on arsonists and tree huggers who won’t allow for fire services to clear enough of the forests. Honestly, this political response to the environmental situation we’re in is nearly as agonizing as the fires themselves.
Optimists, such as myself, have always believed in a worldwide consensus in favor of taking action to save our planet. However, our positivity is recurrently challenged by a more “realistic” narrative: it is difficult to capture people’s attention amid so much global political tension, the issue is too complex, the damage is too gradual and too inconspicuous and any actual danger lays too far ahead in the future. Yet, common sense would tell us that once enough people were made aware of the existing danger and imminent greater danger, and once the empirical evidence of global warming became adequately compelling, certainly climate change would no longer be a peripheral issue, right?
Apparently not. As most of us have stood idly by, the reality of climate change has become the ethical equivalent of war, a plight that outweighs all political divides. An entire continent is in flames and that isn’t sufficient enough to evoke a consensus for action, not even enough for the anti-environmentalist position to be reevaluated? Then what is enough? Will our denial persist even when we’re all nothing more than smoldering remains?
If climate denial and opposition to action are immutable even in the face of striking catastrophe, what hope is there? Let’s be intrepid and agree that our current state of affairs is rather self-destructive, but nonetheless, losing hope is not something we can do. The answer, evidently, is that scientific persuasion, based upon factual and reliable sources, is encountering abrasively diminishing returns. Almost none of the people still advocating for the denial of our climate crisis will ever be convinced by further, more detailed evidence, nor, it seems, the recent increase of cataclysms.
Yet, this is precisely where a common misconception dwells: in order to create change, everyone needs to act. As reported by the Washington Post, a Gallup Poll in 1961 showed that only 28 percent of respondents in a U.S. survey approved of the freedom buses and lunch counter sit-ins during the Civil Rights movement. Only 57 percent supported same-sex marriage when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in its interest in 2015. In the mid-2000s, Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, analyzed hundreds of nonviolent campaigns over the course of a century. She found that it takes merely 3.5 percent of the population actively participating in civil protests to cause palpable change.
The more optimal step to take now is to exchange investing our time and energy in persuading those in perpetual denial with assembling the critical mass to turn the tide. Climate change is a problem less of individual belief than of collective action, a failure that can be remedied solely through public policy. The most productive route toward enacting such policy resides not in changing minds and persuading those uneducated or ignorant to believe in climate change, but rather in galvanizing those who already do. We must give the people already involved and committed a concrete objective, a manual of actionable instructions, achievable and realistic, where the success of outcomes can be clearly judged.
Global Warming’s Six Americas 2018 survey on Americans’ attitudes toward climate change found that 31percent are “alarmed” and are taking action, another 26 percent are “concerned,” and 16 percent are “cautious” but not taking action. For the most potent impact, we should concentrate action-oriented climate communication on the latter two groups rather than seeking to prove to the 27 percent who fall in the “disengaged,” “doubtful” and “dismissive” categories that they’re wrong and we’re right.
So, what should you do the next time your uncle calls climate change a “liberal hoax” over the dinner table?
First, realize how much of your time you’re willing to dedicate to this “discussion.” Then, don’t. Discuss something that connects both of you on shared values. Once you’ve finished talking, utilize the time you didn’t spend aimlessly arguing about climate change to research, call your legislator, join a protest, or form a relationship with a local environmental nonprofit.
Nevertheless, if you ever feel that saying something or intervening in a conversation is absolutely imperative, recognize that while there’s no one way to talk to people about climate change, dialogue, language and mutual respect matter. Help your uncle understand that risk-reward analysis leads to conclusions in favor of taking action. However much he doubts the certainty of the scientific argument, he should be able to admit that there is a sizeable probability that the accepted evidence points to a bleak future. And given that this future unequivocally precipitates the total destruction of our planet, no one, however uncertain, should accept the possibility of such a risk. Thus, immediate action to alter the course of accelerated global warming is not a choice, not a whim, but rather a most-urgent necessity.
As for climate change from the Jewish perspective, it baffles me that many Jews, prominent Jewish organizations included, still don’t consider the life-or-death climate predicament to be a “Jewish issue.” Whether viewed in the context of pursuing justice or acting as stewards of God’s sublime creation, the annihilation of our planet, the decimation of life, impoverishment, famine and disease that will arise as a consequence of climate change are as critical and applicable as any explicitly Jewish issue. Rising sea levels resulting from melting polar ice shelves and glaciers could soon drown Tel-Aviv, New York, Miami and other cities largely and densely populated by Jews. As long as Jews live on this planet, combating global warming will remain a Jewish responsibility.
Jewish federations are quite adept at responding to emergencies—when southern Israel is under rocket attack from Gaza, when an earthquake strikes Haiti or when hurricanes devastate US coastal cities. It’s time we start addressing climate change as a Jewish emergency, one that requires us to take decisive action, such as mobilizing our communities, in partnership with other faith groups, to actively advocate against global warming and for its immediate resolution. To quote Ethics of the Fathers, “If not now, when?”
We are past the time for convincing. It’s time to act—the survival of Australia, our planet, and ourselves depend on it.