Even one casually following the news has noticed that the frequency and severity of forest fires in California has risen significantly.
One of the millions acutely affected is Jeff Morgan, co-owner of Covenant Wines, a kosher winery in northern California.
“In three of the last five years, we’ve had serious fires like no one remembers having before,” he said. “Each time it happens and we get through it, we breathe a sigh of relief that it’s over, but then the next one comes.”
Fires have destroyed massive numbers of forests and many homes and businesses in their paths. Mr. Morgan’s vineyards in the Napa Valley and Sonoma region have frequently suffered.
“Even if they don’t get burned, every time the grapes are in the path of smoke, there’s a potential for it to taint the skins which can have serious effects on the quality of the wine,” he said. “If the smoke passes through in a day or two, it’s usually OK, but if it sits on your vineyard for a week or longer, it could be a problem.”
Last year, Covenant lost 10% of its crops to smoke damage. In 2017, fires did not directly affect the company’s grapes, but the blazes kept roads leading to some of the vineyards blocked during the harvest season and, by the time they were accessible, the crop was no longer usable.
In recent years, some fires have produced such large amounts of smoke that air conditions were affected in the San Francisco Bay area where Covenant’s winery is located.
Mr. Morgan said that amid challenges he was grateful that his company was still able to produce quality wines, but was not optimistic that fires would become less frequent.
“As long as temperatures keep increasing and rainfall is decreasing, the risk of fire on the whole West Coast keeps getting higher,” he said. “We used to worry about rain during the harvest, now we pray for it.”
Historically, Mexico City had mild temperatures for most of the year and a neat dry season from October through May and a rainy season from June through September, when it rained for an hour or so each day.
Yet, Yosef Mendoza, a translator who lives in the city, says that about 25 years ago, patterns shifted.
“It used to be very well defined,” he said. “During the rainy season it rained every day between four and five and that was it. Now, the rain can come after what used to be the end of the season, at any time of day and for longer streaks. We never used to have a problem of not being able to eat in the sukkah from rain, but it’s not that way anymore and over the last few years there were quite a few occasions when we had to wait around for the rain to stop.”
Another change has been steadily hotter dry seasons, when Mexico City’s infamous smog exacerbated by heat can make living conditions challenging.
“The smog covers the whole city like a dome,” said Mr. Mendoza. “It’s better in the rainy season, but when it’s dry the smog just sits there. Sometimes it’s hard for asthmatics to breathe and people can’t do outdoor exercises. Schools don’t [let children] play outside on days like that either.”
Napa Valley and Mexico City are two places that have suffered extreme effects from the multifaceted effects of climate change in recent years. Yet they are hardly alone. Many areas around the world have experienced altered and, at times, extreme weather patterns over the last two decades. Even temperate regions like the American Northeast have seen markedly more heatwaves, warmer falls, springs, and winters, and more incidents of flooding than in the past.
Examples abound of disruptively extreme weather events.
Recently, Hurricane Ida slammed into the coastal Deep South leaving untold property damage and millions with the prospect of extended power outages amid soaring temperatures. Even the weakened version of the hurricane that made it to the northeast caused massive flooding in some areas, taking the lives of around 40 people.
Around Lake Tahoe, massive fires burned hundreds of miles and forced thousands of residents to evacuate. It was only one of several major blazes in and around California.
In June, the Southwest suffered heatwaves driving temperatures in Phoenix to as high as 118. In early August, the usually temperate Pacific Northwest experienced several days of temperatures over 100.
In July, several Western European countries were struck by severe floods, taking lives and causing major property damage and disruptions, an increasingly common occurrence in recent years.
Studies of the climate have confirmed a steadily rising temperature of the planet for decades, a total of about two degrees over the last century. While the figures sound minor, climate scientists say that the change represents enough of a shift to explain many of the phenomena the world has experienced in recent years. What they find especially alarming is that the rate of increase has become steadily larger each year since the middle of the 20th century.
The vast majority of scientists attribute the phenomenon to the effects of greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere, creating a hotter world with multifaceted ripple effects, though there are significant dissenters over that conclusion and what to do about it.
A Hotter World
The theory of the human hand in climate change is rooted in emission of greenhouse gases. During the Industrial Revolution, coal-burning factories and homes began emitting far larger amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In the 20th century, the advent of petroleum and other fossil fuels, along with the proliferation of automobiles and other oil-burning technologies, accelerated this trend.
“We are emitting about 40 billion tons of carbon per year; that’s 6.5 tons per person and that is changing the composition of the atmosphere,” said Zeke Hausfather, director of Climate and Energy at the Breakthrough Institute.
The release of carbon, together with other gases like methane and nitrous oxide, create a cloud of sorts in the earth’s atmosphere that most scientists believe traps and intensifies the sun’s heat, making the world an increasingly warmer place.
“We know the world is getting warmer, we know these gases trap heat, and we know humans are the ones increasing these levels since there’s no other place they could come from,” said Dr. Hausfather. “All models suggest that without emissions, levels of greenhouse gases would have been flat.”
How warming causes more intense hurricanes and rainstorms is a subject of debate, but the most widely accepted explanation hinges on warmer ocean temperatures.
“Hurricanes need very specific conditions in order to form and in a warming world they might actually be less frequent, but more intense,” said Dr. Hausfather.
Likewise, changing atmospheric conditions and rising sea surface temperatures, many posit, likely causes less rainfall events, but ones of higher intensity.
“There is widespread agreement that a warmer world has more rain in each event, but [fewer] events of rain could make dry seasons longer, leaving vegetation dryer and causing more wildfires,” said Dr. Hausfather.
This past August, the U.N.-appointed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report largely confirming the beliefs of mainstream climate scientists. One of its notable points was that present warming will not be reversible in the foreseeable future, but that future warming can be averted with reduced emissions.
Another key finding of the report was that while it is highly unlikely that the atmosphere would right itself without significant reductions in emissions, extreme concerns like highly accelerated warming or the collapse of polar ice sheets are also unlikely.
While consent over the basic ideas of climate change is broad and growing, there remains significant dissent on a range of points.
One prominent voice that has raised doubts about the severity of climate change and the extent of human responsibility for it is Steven Koonin, a physicist who served as Under Secretary for Science, Department of Energy, during the Obama administration and now teaches at New York University. He authored a recent book tellingly titled Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters.
He argues that the most dire predictions climate science offers for the future are based on flawed modeling and that the media and researchers eager to push policy changes often distort complex and inconclusive data into apocalyptic predictions.
“The parties of the Paris Accord arbitrarily agreed to limit further warming to another degree,” wrote Professor Koonin in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece. “But since humanity’s well-being has improved spectacularly, even as the globe warmed during the 20th century, it is absurd to suggest that an additional degree of warming over the next century will be catastrophic.”
The same article focused chiefly on the IPCC report, which Dr. Koonin called out for failing to place data in context, leading to potentially faulty conclusions.
“As is now customary, the report emphasizes climate change in recent decades but obscures, or fails to mention, historical precedents that weaken the case that humanity’s influence on the climate has been catastrophic. The Summary for Policy Makers section says the rate of global sea-level rise has been increasing over the past 50 years. It doesn’t mention that it was increasing almost as rapidly 90 years ago before decreasing strongly for 40 years.”
The majority of climate skeptics in the scientific world acknowledge the phenomenon of warming and that human-driven emissions play some role. Dissent is mostly on the extent of that role and what policy changes can be justified to curb it.
Charting a Green Road
Still, most of science is sold on the idea that quality and stability of life on earth is tied to reducing emission levels and finding ways to power life on earth using electric, solar, and other non-fossil energy sources. International pacts like the 2016 Paris Accords brought nations together that mutually agreed to reduce their greenhouse emissions over the coming decades with the goal of reaching zero in 40-50 years.
Ideas on how to accomplish that range from taxes and government mandates to adopt “greener” energy sources to subsidies and other market incentives for companies to develop cleaner means of operation and affordable versions of items like electric cars.
More extreme plans to de-carbonize the nation like the “Green New Deal,” which aims to transition away from fossil fuels by 2030, rely on methods that would create challenges for many industries and cost the government phenomenal sums of taxpayer money. The progressive Democratic proposal, which also addresses housing, healthcare, wages, and other non-environmental matters, has engendered pushback against ambitious attempts to address climate change, pointing to the damage it would do to the economy and taxpayers.
Chris Barnard, Policy Director for the American Conservation Coalition (ACC), said that ultimately proposals like the Green New Deal do not effectively address climate change.
“It calls for huge government involvement which is not sustainable. We feel that if climate change is not led by the market, we will never get to the goals we’re looking to meet,” he said. “We see this fundamentally as a technical problem. That is, figuring out how we can use the market to make the climate cleaner.”
ACC is unique, as a conservative environmental think tank advocating for pro-business and limited-government solutions to climate change and other ecological issues. Mr. Barnard said that his organization finds itself at odds with “climate deniers” on the right, but also feels that the left’s scare tactics are harmful to climate issues.
“We get a bit frustrated with the progressive side that tends to inflate some concerns, dabble in alarmism, and take the worst-case scenarios that the planet is about to go up in flames,” he said. “The IPCC report was helpful in that it confirmed that these issues are real and need to be addressed, but it also showed that the apocalyptic scenarios are not consistent with the science.”
As an example of what Mr. Barnard saw as a positive way for government to address climate change, he pointed to the bipartisan Growing Climate Solutions Act, which passed the Senate earlier this summer by a vote of 92-8. The bill clears regulatory hurdles and incentivizes farmers and other large land holders to adopt carbon-reducing practices.
Ironically the “no” votes came from a coalition of Democratic Green New Deal backers and Republican climate skeptics that included staunch progressives Senators Cory Booker, Ed Markey, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, and right-wing stalwarts Senators Josh Hawley, Mike Lee, and James Inhofe.
A Brighter, But Not Hotter, Tomorrow
Despite deep concern from most scientists over the need to address climate change, some see cause for optimism.
In the 1980s and ’90s a centerpiece of environmental concern was the “ozone hole,” sections of the earth’s ozone layer that scientists said had eroded due to the emission of CFCs — gases that were emitted by many refrigerators, air conditioners, and some other devices.
In 1987, 197 national leaders including then-President Ronald Reagan signed the Montreal Protocols which placed strict limits on CFC emissions. By now, the ozone layer has mostly recovered.
“The Montreal Protocol is one of the best examples we have of the international community getting together to solve a major environmental problem,” said Dr. Hausfather. “It’s also an example of technology enabling policy; the process only moved forward once cost-effective alternatives to CFCs were available, which generated buy-in from both industry and more resistant governments.”
Dr. Hausfather said that while the use of fossil fuels create a bigger challenge than CFCs, he is encouraged by the strides clean energy has taken, though much more would have to be done to meet emissions reduction goals.
“The climate problem is harder to solve both because its cause is much more central to our way of life than CFCs was and because we do not have as many cost-effective alternatives, though given rapid progress in clean energy like wind, solar, geothermal, batteries, EVs and the like we are quickly moving in that direction. Cheap clean energy is enabling countries to make much more ambitious emissions reductions commitments, as we have seen over the past year,” he said. “We need to do a lot more to meet these goals, but we are finally moving in the right direction in a meaningful way.”
Our Climate Change
by Dayan Chaim Kohn
The idea that human behavior contributes to the earth’s warming and that making adjustments to the way we live is necessary in order to curtail the negative effects of global warming has been part of the national debate for decades. Like many things it has become highly politicized and most people’s views have more to do with loyalty to a political camp than a logical examination of the issue.
This of course is not the way a Torah Jew should view the question of climate change or any debate for that matter. The question of climate change, however, is complicated by the hashkafic concepts it touches on.
Most of the scientific world is united around the idea that emissions of greenhouse gases is the cause of global warming and that more extreme heat waves and intense storms are a result of this phenomenon, though there are significant voices that doubt these conclusions.
As believing Jews, we have regard for science as a methodical way to study the physical world and guide our lives in it, but we do not look to science as an arbiter of ultimate truth. As such, at best the idea of human contributions to climate change remains a theory that might or might not be true.
This does not absolve us from heeding science’s warnings. Just as in medicine, we do not put ultimate faith in a doctor’s evaluation, but we are obligated to heed their warnings as part of our obligation of v’nishmartem me’od le’nafshosechem; the Torah’s command to look out for one’s health and safety. We are used to thinking of this concept on an individual level, but it equally applies to our responsibility to do what we can to keep the world as safe and healthy a place as possible.
This is no contradiction between the possibility that we could be damaging the world and Hashem’s hashgachah over it. Just as one who ingests toxins, R”l, could injure or kill himself, so too it is possible for man to hurt the world he lives in.
There is an important distinction to be made, however, that while man does have the ability to commit suicide, R”l, bringing the world to an apocalypse is not in his hands. Free will is a fundamental principal of our belief, but so is the idea that it is limited by Hashem’s hashgachah.
Not only is it outside the scope of our belief to think that man could end the world, no matter how correct or not climate science is, as in all things, the ultimate state of the world is controlled by Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s will, not scientific axioms. No matter how much CO2 is emitted, if Hashem wills the world to remain in a certain state, that is what will be.
As in other areas of our life, there is nothing wrong with taking precautions based on the advice of experts. Indeed, in many cases we have a responsibility to do so. What is not appropriate is to draw final conclusions about the state of the world based on scientific observations. Final outcomes will always be the realm of Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
For Klal Yisrael, whatever our views on climate policy are as individuals, every Jew must look at the changes and events that have occurred in the natural world as a message to search our ways and look for how to improve our spiritual standing. As inhabitants of the world we share some obligations with the nations with whom we live. But that does not absolve us from our higher responsibility, not to see world events as mere news items, but as messages from Hakadosh Baruch Hu that something should change in the ruchniyus of our personal climates.