Sixty-nine years ago on December 10, 1948, forty-eight nations signed the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights [1]. This historic document resulting as a consequence of crimes committed against humanity during World War II was the first global expression of what constitute inherent human rights for all human beings.

On this Shabbat coinciding with the anniversary of its signing, “T’ruah – The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights” invited hundreds of American rabbis and their synagogues to focus on the most dangerous threat to human rights on the planet – climate change.

The theme of climate change coinciding with the Declaration of Human Rights couldn’t have been calendared at a more propitious moment given President-Elect Trump’s selection this week as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, a proven ally of the fossil fuel industry and arguably the greatest climate change denier in the United States.

Pruitt’s selection ought to chill the blood of anyone who accepts what 90% or greater of all scientists believe to be settled fact, that human-made greenhouse gas emissions have caused a 1.7 degree Fahrenheit warming of the earth since records were kept in 1880 and that virtually all warming since 1950 has been caused by the human release of greenhouse gasses.

In an article from the NY Times explaining what climate change is and does and what are the politics surrounding it, we read this about people like Trump and Pruitt:

“The most extreme version of climate denialism is to claim that scientists are engaged in a worldwide hoax to fool the public so that the government can gain greater control over people’s lives.” [2]

The truth, of course, is otherwise – that if we can’t find enough carbon neutral energy as a way to limit global climate disruption, we won’t be able to grow enough food and there will be no space in which we can protect fundamental human rights around the world. Unless we successfully find a way nor will societies be able to maintain democratic governments.

We need not look very far to see evidence of the danger. In the past year increasing fear of Syrian refugees has helped to invigorate right-wing and proto-fascist policies in Great Britain and Europe.

Rabbi David Seidenberg, an activist, writer, and scholar on environmental issues, has written from a Jewish perspective about the climate change threat:

“The intersection between the economy and human rights is … not only found in opposing the building of a toxic waste incinerator near a poor community, or fighting the exposure of children to endocrine-disrupting pesticides…[or] is it in the perceived moments of conflict between human rights and the environment, such as the false choice between making jobs and saving a forest… A deeper intersection is found in the great human tragedy that could accompany global warming. If predictions hold and the rising sea creates millions of refugees from coastal areas, then shelter, which should be a [basic human right], will become an impossibility. Any government trying to protect the most basic human needs and rights would find itself in extreme crisis under such circumstances, and many governments will be tempted to discard human rights in the name of national emergency…Where we find the deepest depths is…where human rights…makes us blind to our place in the earth …” [3]

Scientists warn that if we allow the warming of the environment, the polar ice caps will continue to melt, the seas will rise, and there will be greater, more frequent and damaging coastal flooding. Rainfall will become heavier in many parts of the world and hurricanes and typhoons will become more intense. There will be a massive extinction of plants and animals, more waves of refugees will flee their lands, and more governments will be destabilized.

What do we do?

First, we all need to become activists and protest the Trump administration’s expected elimination of regulations on the fossil-fuel industry.

We need to support the Paris Climate agreement’s implementation, and in every way reduce our own individual carbon footprints. If large numbers of people did so it would make a difference. Suggestions include insulating homes, reducing our use of power, using efficient light bulbs, turning off lights and heaters, driving fewer miles, taking fewer airplane trips, and reducing or eliminating the eating of beef.

In the Book of Genesis, the first humans were given dominion over the land [4]. Though we were given the privilege to have use of the land and its resources for our benefit, later Jewish tradition gave a warning to the irresponsible use of and the waste of our natural resources:

“Upon presenting the wonder of creation to Adam, God said: ‘See my works, how fine and excellent they are! Now all that I created, for you I created. Think upon this, and do not corrupt and desolate my world; for if you corrupt it, there is no one to set it right after you.” [5]

When this Midrash was written some 1500 years ago, the intent was likely focused on specific towns and villages. Today, we are confronted with a threat to all life on the earth.

[Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles will celebrate Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday, December 10 at 6:30 PM and we will focus our attention during services on climate change and human rights. All are welcome.]

[1] General Assembly resolution 217 A.
[2] “Short Answers to Hard Questions about Climate Change”, by Justin Gillis, NYTimes, November 28, 2015.
[4] Genesis 1:28.
[5] Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28.