Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 7 July 2007 / 21 Tammuz 5767

Global Warming

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Olga in Odessa

Dear Rabbi,

Global warming seems to be a hot issue on the international scene. What does Judaism say about the human role in the problem, and our responsibility for preventing/correcting it?

Dear Olga,

Allow me to clear the air for our readers regarding what global warming is and its causes before I address your question.

One of the functions of the atmosphere is to simultaneously enable sunlight to reach the Earth to energize life while keeping some of the heat from escaping back into space. In this way, the atmosphere serves as a giant “greenhouse” which keeps the Earth’s climate viable; without which, the Earth’s surface would be 60 degrees Fahrenheit cooler.

The emission of certain gases from Earth and their presence in the atmosphere, insofar as they trap more heat from escaping, compounds the natural greenhouse effect of the atmosphere, resulting in what is commonly referred to as global warming. Since this warming affects winds and ocean currents that move heat around the globe in ways that can cool some areas, warm others, and change the amount of rain and snow falling, it is claimed by some to be more accurately referred to as “climate change”.

Two of the major gases (referred to as greenhouse gases, GHGs) compounding the greenhouse effect are methane and carbon dioxide. The major source of the first is emitted from the digestive system of grazing animals. The major source for the second is combustion of fossil fuels in cars, factories and electricity production.

While humans are obviously responsible for historically unprecedented CO2 pollution, we are also indirectly responsible for the former. Unprecedented meat consumption results in greatly increased grazing which means much more methane. The problem is in turn exacerbated since more grazing requires more grazing land, resulting in the deforestation of millions of trees that would otherwise absorb and convert our CO2 waste into oxygen instead of it being emitted into the atmosphere.

According to the scientific community, global warming is not only a hot topic, but an issue of top priority which can adversely affect weather conditions, resulting in severe floods in some areas and severe droughts in others, harm or wipe out animal and plant species, raise sea levels displacing coastal inhabitants world wide, reduce world wide water supplies coming from snowmelt, and make the world a much hotter place to live in.

According to the Torah view, to the extent to which we contribute to the problem, we are culpable for it. Similarly, to the extent that we can prevent/correct the problem, we are responsible to do so. This is evident from the following Torah teachings:

“When the Holy One Blessed Be He created the first man he took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him — ‘See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are; and I created all of it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy My world because if you spoil it, there will be no one after you to repair it’.” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch describes the magnitude of this mandate in no uncertain terms: “‘Do not destroy anything!’ is the first and most general call of G-d, which comes to you… If you regard the creations as objects without rights, not perceiving G-d Who created them... you have no right to the things around you... If you use them unwisely, you commit treachery against My world, you commit murder and robbery against My property... With this call He defends the greatest and the smallest against you and grants the greatest and the smallest a right against your presumptuousness.” (Horeb, London: Soncino Press, 1962, chap. 56, #397)

We find that the Sages prohibited burning wood from olive trees and grape vines on the altar. According to one opinion this was to avoid air pollution, since these woods burn with a great deal of smoke. (Baba Kama 82b)

In Sefer HaChinuch, Rabbi Aaron Halevi of Barcelona writes, “This is the way of pious and elevated people... they will not waste even a mustard seed, and they are distressed at every ruination and spoilage they see, and if they are able to save, they will save anything from destruction with all of their power... Every person is obligated to master his inclinations and conquer his desires [to exploit and consume].” (Sefer HaChinuch 529)

Judaism’s attitude toward protecting nature is not just for tangible results in the present; the Torah also teaches to plan preservation strategies for the future. The Talmud relates that Choni HaMe’agel was walking on the road. He saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked the man, “How long until this tree will produce fruit?” He answered that it will take seventy years. Choni asked him, “Are you sure that you’ll still be around in seventy years?” The man replied, “Just as my fathers planted for me, so will I plant for my children.” (Ta’anit 23b)

We see from all these sources that we must take responsibility for maintaining and preserving G-d’s Creation not only for the here and now, but also for the benefit of posterity. This is something that must be taken very seriously, and we are required to follow the guidance of the experts in taking practical measures of conservation and preservation to save the world from irresponsible and destructive consumption.

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