Parashat Vayikra

The Pending Guilt Offering and the Global Climate

We must take responsibility for our actions even in absence of conclusive proof we have done something wrong.

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If the warming stays in the low end of this range, the consequences may not be severe. The middle range forecast will likely be quite negative for humanity. According to the upper range scenario, the consequences would be dire: warming would melt polar ice caps, causing massive flooding, wreaking havoc on agriculture, and fueling powerful, destructive storms.

In spite of the wealth of evidence from various US and international government agencies, skepticism still exists. Some say that it would be rash to take costly measures to stop the release of greenhouse gases while there is still scientific uncertainty as to the extent of their affect.

Even if the naysayers are right, and global warming is not a pressing problem, reducing our need for fossil fuels would still result in positive benefits--air would be cleaner, the chance of oil spills and other disasters would be reduced, pristine lands would not be threatened by drilling plans, and energy politics would no longer be at the center of global affairs.

The very message of the asham talui offering is that atonement must be sought even in the absence of certainty. Since what is at stake could be the continuation of life as we know it, our use of fossil fuels has tremendous bearing on how we serve God and act as stewards of Creation.

Thus, as Sforno says, we should avoid behaviors that might bring us into guilt. Burning fossil fuels to support the global industrial economy has led us into just such a situation, and will continue to do so if we do not respond accordingly.

The Torah underlies a contemporary moral and political guiding value, the precautionary principle. It implies "...a willingness to take action in advance of scientific proof [or] evidence of the need for the proposed action on the grounds that further delay will prove ultimately most costly to society and nature, and, in the longer term, selfish and unfair to future generations."

The Midrash to our verse teaches, "Rabbi Yose the Galilean says: Scripture punishes someone who did not know [whether he had sinned or not]; how much more so will Scripture punish someone who does indeed know!"

Thus our tradition emphasizes how a person's sin becomes more severe as awareness increases. Today, a global consensus of scientists has become more and more adamant about the urgent need for human action to curb global climate change. Even if we are not certain of the long-term impacts of global warming today, we must prepare for the future, or know that our guilt is before God.

Suggested Action Items:

1. Calculate your carbon footprint. This can be done online at websites like this.

2. Consider the frequency of your air travel. Flying contributes even more to climate change than driving because much more of the carbon emitted by a plane goes directly to the atmosphere.

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Jonathan Neril

Jonathan Neril is the project manager of the Jewish Environmental Parsha Initiative. He is a rabbinical student in his fourth year of Jewish learning in Israel. He received an MA and BA at Stanford with a focus on global environmental issues.