As Reform Jews, we have an obligation to the earth and all of its inhabitants. Our Jewish texts and tradition teach us a dual responsibility to “till and tend” (Genesis 2:15) the earth and to “love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:17-18). It is this tradition that leads us to see climate change as more than just an environmental issue. Climate change is an ethical, political, public health, and – above all – a social justice issue. Climate justice is about the real human-felt impacts of a changing environment and the urgency that places on us to act.
Introduction to Climate Justice
Working towards climate justice means addressing climate change at the intersections of the racial, social and economic disparities that it perpetuates. All humans rely on the environment for their livelihood. And, we recognize that addressing climate change is deeply interconnected with our vision of a more just world. Climate change causes droughts, diseases, extreme weather, famine and air and water contamination. Both in the United States and abroad, the effects of climate change disproportionately impact disadvantaged and vulnerable communities.
This is evidenced by the disparity in exposure to toxins, rates of diseases caused by climate change, and destruction left in the wake of extreme weather. Six million Americans live within three miles of a coal power plant. Coal power plants are more heavily concentrated in low-income and communities of color. Because of this disproportionate exposure, African American and Latino children are more likely than white children to be poisoned by lead and to have asthma. African American communities also have disproportionately high rates of asthma and cancer clusters. Internationally, the effects of climate change are most significant for developing countries that lack the means for proper preparation and emergency response. For example, Haiti’s crops and agriculture were devastated by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, which took the lives of over 1,000 people. This is due – in large part – to a lack of preparedness and poverty.
The United States and other developed nations have a unique role to play in curbing the effects of climate change and making long-term changes to further prevent it. The world’s poorest nations contribute the least to climate change, yet they bear the heaviest brunt of it. Wealthier countries can help developing countries prepare for the effects of climate change and commit to reducing carbon emissions in their own countries. The Green Climate Fund, established by former Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, is intended to help poorer countries – many of which have more fragile ecosystems that are strongly affected by climate disruption and subsequent decreases in biodiversity and world food supply – adapt to climate change. Developed countries were encouraged to put money into this fund in advance of the historic United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris, France in 2015. The United States has pledged to contribute $3 billion over 10 years to the Green Climate Fund. As of 2016, the United States has contributed $1 billion. Canada has pledged to contribute $2.65 billion over 10 years. Both the United States and Canada rank among the top 10 emitters of greenhouse gases and have a responsibility to lead the world on climate action.
Some Aspects of Climate Justice
- Environmental Stewardship: We have a responsibility to be caretakers of our natural world and to preserve our ecosystems for future generations. Creation includes all people, animals, and plants, and as such we heed the call to be faithful stewards of our entire natural world. All of God’s creatures have intrinsic worth, and many of our faith traditions specifically call us to protect all species. As stewards of God’s creation, we are charged with protecting the integrity of the web of life.
- Just Transition: We must ensure a just transition to a greener economy and energy system. This means ensuring that poor and minority communities are not disproportionately burdened with the costs of a carbon-free future and that the most-affected communities are meaningfully involved in the transition. We must also ensure that the millions of Americans who rely on the impacted industries for employment have job security in a green economy.
- Public Health: Climate change has a large effect on our nation’s health. These include temperature-related illnesses, air-quality impacts and impacts from extreme weather events. Extreme weather can lead to diseases from insect bites such as Lyme disease or malaria, contaminated drinking water, inaccessibility to proper nutrition and can impact mental health as well. A planet with polluted air, contaminated water and changes in vector ecology will negatively affect public health. Pursuing climate justice means helping vulnerable communities adapt to the changes that are already happening and helping communities, as well as medical professionals, prepare for future effects.
- Intersections: A lack of climate action will result in costs for everyone. However, escalating climate change will hit low- and moderate-income people, including people of color, first and worst. Vulnerable communities—disproportionately African American and Hispanic—face the greatest threats from rising sea levels, ascending temperatures and extreme weather patterns. Yet, these communities often have the least capacity to adapt. Therefore, policies designed to limit carbon emissions and advance climate solutions must be advancing and timely in order to addressing the mounting climate crisis while ensuring protection for the most disadvantaged.
- International Climate Action: While the United States is home to only 5% of the world’s population, we contribute about 16% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The practices of the United States and other developed nations put an undue burden onto developing countries. As a developed nation and one of the top two emitters of greenhouse gases, the United States has a unique responsibility to be a world leader on climate action. For this reason, we must be vigorous in our support for international climate actions such as the Paris Agreement, the Green Climate Fund and actions to protect the Arctic.
People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, 1991: Principles of Environmental Justice
Environmental Protection Agency: Environmental Justice
Oregon Interfaith Power & Light: Climate Change is a Social Justice Issue