(November 4, 2019 / JNS) There is a sense of increasing panic in many parts of the globe in response to the potential impacts of climate change. Many are calling for drastic and immediate action. As a Jewish forester who spent a career working with the environment, forests and energy, what follows is my approach to the issue.
First, we must understand our responsibility as human beings for taking care of our planet. Second, we need to get a true picture, neither overstated nor understated, of the challenges we face. Third and last, we must take action where we can make a difference; the Jewish axiom being we need to do our part, and God will take care of the rest.
The Torah speaks very clearly about our responsibility as stewards of the earth. We are not to abuse the earth, and we are not to worship it. We are to conserve and protect it for future generations. (Coincidentally, this is the mission of the U.S. Forest Service.) The first commandments in the opening chapter of Genesis are to create families and take care of the earth.
However, getting a true picture regarding the state of the planet is more difficult than it might seem. We know for certain that there is more carbon dioxide in the upper atmosphere than at any time in recent history, and this may well be an important factor in long-term climate trends. We also know that many more people are living in cities today than ever before, and that cities are considerably warmer than rural areas. Concrete, asphalt and steel reflect significant amounts of heat.
However, in sifting through studies and seeking truth, we need to be cautious about the manipulation of data. For example, one forestry fact that is often cited is that the United States is experiencing the worst wildfires in the past 50 years. That fact is correct. However, the 1930s saw wildfire seasons just as horrific as today’s. Unfortunately, studies of sea ice, water levels and temperature, by some accounts, exhibit similar challenges; i.e., the severity of the problem depends upon which period one studies.
All that said, we are still seeing massive wildfires in the Western United States, even though these areas are currently not in a drought cycle. (California snowpack in 2019 was the highest it has been in a decade.) An honest assessment of the problem would include factors such as powerline ignitions, strong wind events, home building in or adjoining the forest without a buffer, home-construction materials, overgrown forest environment, etc.
We also need to be on guard lest our view of the severity and causes of climate change be unduly influenced by competing energy and environmental interests. The “environmental” case against the use of coal, for example, was initially funded by the natural-gas industry.
There may be important advantages to supporting geothermal, wind, solar, hydro, woody biomass and nuclear-energy power. Each method of power production, however, comes with its own challenges.
Specifically, in 2007 Chesapeake Energy provided $26 million to environmental organizations, which funds were used to help to support natural gas as a desirable energy alternative and to build the case against coal. At one point as energy lead for the U.S. Forest Service, I was asked to brief White House staff (during U.S. President Barack Obama’s term) so they might better understand “fracking” of natural-gas wells, as they supported natural-gas development. We explained what the actual issues were and how they were being addressed to safely extract natural gas. Yet I wondered if their support for natural gas development was influenced by support from the environmental community at that time.
The National Forests and Grasslands, which comprise 10 percent of the continental U.S. land base, host significant energy and coal reserves. On one National Grassland in Wyoming there is a solid, rock-like cake of coal in the ground which is 60 feet deep, 70 miles wide and 120 miles long. To date, two by five miles of the cake has been removed with virtually no impact to the surrounding environment.
None of which is to say that there may not be climate-impacting reasons to use less coal, in addition to which there is also the economics of transportation to consider; i.e., moving coal by train vs. gas by pipeline.
There may be important advantages to supporting geothermal, wind, solar, hydro, woody biomass and nuclear-energy power. Each method of power production, however, comes with its own challenges. For example, wind turbines (made chiefly in China), while providing carbon-free energy, require raw materials to build, which must be mined. In addition, there are power gaps when the wind doesn’t blow, as well as transmission, visual and wildlife concerns.
There are arguments about whether burning fossil fuels is or is not impacting the natural carbon cycle. There are concerns about supporting nations hostile to Israel and U.S. interests in purchasing fossil fuels. Therefore, we need to objectively understand and carefully weigh environmental (including climate), economic and political trade-offs before steering energy markets, whether in the United States or Israel.
We also need to dial back the name calling in today’s climate discussions. A friend of mine pointed out that besides climate change, the only other context in which the epithet “denier” is commonly used is the Holocaust.
There are those who might study the data and reach a different understanding of the severity of the situation or potential remedies which are less impactful. Is it OK to equate their difference of opinion with those of a Holocaust-denier? Isn’t there a more civil approach?
Mountains of plastic floating in the ocean is a real problem with a potential remedy.
It is important to prioritize our efforts in conserving and protecting the earth. I recall one particular field inspection in the Nevada-California area near Lake Tahoe. We came upon a stream that was color of green anti-freeze for miles as the settling ponds from an old mine were overflowing. Interestingly, the State of California had ownership of this site. Here was an environmental problem with an identified owner and a potential remedy.
Mountains of plastic floating in the ocean is a real problem with a potential remedy.
There are studies showing that the impact on the atmosphere from wildfires is equal to one-third of the auto emissions in the United States. Overgrown, fire-prone forests that need to be thinned so if, and when, there is a wildfire it doesn’t take out the entire stand, cook the seed in the soil and produce those emissions; this is an important challenge, which has a remedy.
Almost 90 percent of us now live in cities. These are the earth’s most intense heat producing islands. What can we do? Two words: Plant trees. Particularly fire-resistant broad-leaf shade trees. Studies have shown that similar neighborhoods with trees vs. without trees have significantly lower energy needs, lower childhood asthma rates and even lower crime rates. Flooding from storm events can be ameliorated by protecting trees and green areas. And as a reminder, trees are those amazing mechanisms that actually consume carbon dioxide, and turn it into fruit and fiber and oxygen.
On a personal level, we can continue to make choices which increase energy efficiency and support conservation, such as using solar hot-water heaters (ubiquitous throughout Israel) and purchasing more energy-efficient vehicles.
There are lots of meaningful steps we can take in our own lives, with our families and in our communities. We can also judiciously examine and, where prudent, steer energy policies. But full-throttle climate panic does not seem warranted. Let’s focus on where we can make a difference … and leave the rest up to God.
Gary Schiff was a former forest manager and director for renewable and non-renewable energy resources for the U.S. Forest Service. He also staffed the House Natural Resource Committee overseeing the U.S. Forest Service and served as policy director for America’s State Foresters. He recently moved to Israel, and consults on U.S. and Israel natural resource challenges.
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