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United in Common Purpose

Just over a week ago, an op-ed appeared in the New York Times entitled “A Republican Case for Climate Action.” I admit that when I first read it, I thought it was just a part of the continued struggle of competing factions within the Republican Party. However, the authors, all former heads of the EPA appointed by Republican Presidents, weren’t really saying anything about partisanship. Sure, there were plenty of “conservative” buzzwords thrown in like “free mark solutions,” “common sense solutions” and “trusting in the innovation of American business,” but the substance and even the proposals discussed in the brief piece were anything but partisan.

The article touched on the scientific conclusions trumpeted by the environmental community and alluded to the moral obligations triumphed by the faith community.

The truth is this is not a partisan, ethical, scientific or even religious debate anymore. If you consider yourself conservative, centrist, liberal or even if you despise labels; if you come at the problem as a scientist, as a Christian, a Jew, A Muslim, a Buddhist or an Atheist; if you are a parent, a grandparent, a brother or a sister; if you think about preservation, progress, development or advancement; if you worry about future struggles, economic opportunity, predictable weather patterns or long term sustainability; if you wonder what historians will say about us, what our friends will think of us, how our adversaries will perceive us or whether our children will blame us, then you are bound to the fate of this struggle no matter what the party affiliation box says on your voter registration card.

Fifty years ago this summer, President John F. Kennedy said, “Our most basic common link, is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s futures, and we are all mortal.” Indeed, our fate is bound to one another and to the choices we make that will forever preserve and protect or undermine and destroy that which we hold dear.

Rabbi Tarfon said, “The day is short, the labor vast, the toilers idle, the reward great, and the Master of the house is insistent. It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it” (Avot 2:20-21). The master of our house, the temperate climate on which we depend, grows more insistent with each coming day, and we are bound by common purpose to work towards a sustainable society. It is upon each of us to partake or our task will never be complete.

Image Courtesy of Larvatus Prodeo.

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Final Confirmation

As part of the deal reached in the Senate to prevent changing the rules for attaining cloture and the ability of the minority to filibuster, a number of President Obama’s nominees for various executive offices were confirmed last week. One of those is Gina McCarthy.

On Thursday the Senate voted 61-39 to confirm McCarthy as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As you may recall, a group of senators marched out of the Environment and Public Works committee hearing on her confirmation, in an effort to block her confirmation and to protest the very existence of the EPA. Her confirmation finally gives the EPA an executive who can oversee the agency, which will be primarily responsible for implementing the President’s new climate change effort.

President Obama’s proposal includes limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants, the completion of overdue emissions standards for new power plants, support for energy efficiency programs, and implementation of strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change. Such programs will help ensure that those who are least responsible for climate change and who remain most vulnerable to its effects receive assistance to lessen its impact on their lives. McCarthy will be responsible for carrying out this illustrious goal. Here’s to hoping that we’ll finally start to see the implementation of world-saving policies that we so desperately need.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

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Driving on the High Road

My second cousin, who will be starting college this fall, works as a salesman for Tesla Motors. Over the 4th of July holiday, he offered to take me and my uncle for a test drive. A few weeks back, I wrote about the demise of Better Place and the second (third? fourth? ) death of the electric car. In that post, I made a blunder when I said, “The electric car is probably not dead, but it is on life support. Perhaps somewhere down the road we will see this idea or some variation of it resurface. Obviously, internal combustion technology will have to be retired at some point, and the sooner the better.” I looked at electric cars roughly the way most people probably do, as a niche item with a limited range and even more limited horsepower and versatility. I was wrong in that assumption and came away from my brief stint in Tesla’s Model S with a renewed sense that the internal combustion engine may finally have met its match.

There are still significant obstacles to seeing electric vehicles like the Tesla in the hands of the average consumers. How many people shell out $63,000 for a base model car? Then again I had similar questions about the concept of a $600 iPhone when it first hit the market. 6 years later, the cost has fallen (well, sort of), and iPhones and its competitors with similar features and capabilities are prevalent. So there is hope for the electric car, too.

We may not be able to find arguments between ancient rabbis about the need for electric cars, nor has the URJ passed a resolution on the Tesla. But still, I can’t escape examining the key questions about electric cars from a moral, Jewish lens. Depending on where you live, driving a plug-in means switching your transportation fuel from oil to coal, which is actually more detrimental for the environment.

One of my favorite interpretations of bal tashchit, the commandment to against waste and destruction, provides instruction on the proper way to use an oil lamp. As explained by the URJ, “Mar Zutra says that whoever covers an oil lamp or who uncovers a naptha lamp transgresses bal tashchit since these acts cause the lamp to burn with unnecessary speed [Shabbat 67b].” For this reason, driving an electric vehicle is moral only if it does not harm the environment more than driving a regular vehicle. Thus, Talmudic scholars would argue that if you used renewable energy to charge your Tesla, then it is a moral investment. If, however, you use energy generated by burning coal, then it is actually immoral to use an electric vehicle, for doing so means generating even more waste than your conventional car. So while the Tesla may represent the future of automobiles, until we break our coal habit and transition to greener fuels, the mass adoption of plug-in vehicles may have the counterintuitive effect of increasing the very emissions we need to reduce. With that said, you will be sure to turn heads cruising down the highway in one of these bad-boys.

Image Courtesy of Net Car Show.

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It’s Not Just a Jewish Guilt Trip. It’s the Law!

In December of last year, the National People’s Congress, the legislature of the People’s Republic of China, passed a new law requiring children to care for their elderly parents. According to the AP report, the law dictates, “offspring of parents older than 60 should see that their daily, financial and spiritual needs are met.” Confucianism, the spiritual and societal structure that governed Chinese society for centuries up until the Communist revolution and remains important to understanding Chinese social order, includes strong familiar connections stemming from the concept of filial piety, the respect of a child for a parent. Read more…

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Obama’s Warming to Climate Change Policy

Having significantly turned up the proverbial “heat” on the issue in his State of the Union address in January, President Obama made good on his ultimatum to Congress that he would soon take executive action on climate change if they failed to do so. Low and behold Congress, moving slower than a receding glacier on this issue, has yet to take any significant steps toward passing climate change legislation.

As Reform Jews, there were many points of progress in the President’s remarks. The event took place at Georgetown University and was directed to a younger audience. “[I]t was important for me to speak directly to your generation because the decisions that we make now and in the years ahead will have a profound impact on the world that all of you inherit.” Indeed the theme of l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation) underscored his statement. “So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you but to your children and to your grandchildren.”

Perhaps more interesting to those of us who make social action a focus of our lives was that the President’s remarks called for all of us to take action and become advocates for our climate. “What we need in this fight are citizens who will stand up and speak up and compel us to do what this moment demands. Understand, this is not just a job for politicians. So I’m going to need all of you, to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends.” Indeed, politicians are only part of the policy process.

Now that we have seen the actions the President intends to take on the issue, it is time for us to step up. While he implements his executive actions, we need to try and convince Congress to take the issue at least as seriously. Ask them to pass comprehensive climate legislation and energy efficiency legislation. The ball is now once again in our court to make a difference!

Image Courtesy of the White House.

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Reform Movement Applauds President’s Commitment to Addressing Climate Change


Saperstein: Though we are disappointed that Congress has proven unable to pass common sense climate legislation, if the plans laid out today by President Obama are implemented, they promise to advance U.S. efforts to address the climate crisis that threatens people and communities around the world.

June 25, 2013, Washington DC – In response to President Obama’s speech announcing more aggressive executive action to combat climate change, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:

We welcome the President’s renewed commitment to using executive powers to combat climate change. Though we are disappointed that Congress has proven unable to pass common sense climate legislation, if the plans laid out today by President Obama are implemented, they promise to advance U.S. efforts to address the climate crisis that threatens people and communities around the world.

President Obama’s proposal includes limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants, the completion of overdue emissions standards for new power plants, support for energy efficiency programs, and implementation of strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change. Such programs will help ensure those least responsible for climate change and who remain most vulnerable to its effects are assisted with lessening its impact.

The escalating effects of climate change cannot be ignored. From devastating hurricanes to the spate of destructive tornados, from floods to record heat waves, human activity is negatively impacting the climate. Yet changes to human activity can halt this effect, and today’s plan outlined by the President puts us on the right path. We look forward to learning more details in the coming weeks and months and call on Congress to work with the President to protect our planet and ourselves.

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What Would the Talmudic Rabbis Think of the NSA?

Thanks to two leaks of classified information, we have been hearing about data collection practices at the NSA. The evolution of new technologies requires us as a nation to thoughtfully consider how to strike the proper balance between protecting national security and protecting individual privacy. The revelations of the last few weeks, arguably, fall somewhere in the grey area of appropriate behavior. Read more…

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Two Brothers and a Birthright

Like Jacob and Esau reuniting after twenty years apart, President Obama and Chinese President Xi met in California last week for two days of informal talks in an effort to reduce tensions between the two countries and discuss issues of mutual concern. While Sino-American relations had not escalated to the level of the biblical story of the birthright and the soup, the allegations of hacking and cyber-attacking that had been flying as well as China’s vested interest in the controversial Keystone XL pipeline had left the relationship between these two leaders somewhat tense. Read more…

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