Are we making progress toward tikkun olam — healing the earth — or aren’t we? And if so, how do we know?
Those questions struck Seattle photographer Yoram Bernet last year, when he took the Sierra Club’s pledge to reduce his carbon dioxide output by 2 percent in 2008, and realized he had no way to tell if he was accomplishing the goal or not. As social justice chair of the Kavana Cooperative, he met community activist Rabbi Zari Weiss, who was looking for good ways to engage the Jewish community in carbon reduction. Together they hatched the Jewish Climate Challenge.
The two cornerstones of the effort are:
1. An easy-to-use, online tracking tool (www.carbonsalon.net), co-developed by Bernet and a technical team, which enables participants to track month-by-month progress, and measure it against regional, state and U.S. carbon output averages, and
2. Carbon Salons, groups of households and individuals, who pledge to reduce their CO2 output by at least 2 percent each year, and support each other in getting there, through periodic meetings and idea brainstorming. Rabbi Weiss and a large committee run the outreach and marketing efforts.
The challenge begs two questions:
1. Why carbon footprint reduction? and
2. How can Jews, fewer than half of 1 percent of the U.S. population, make any difference?
Here are my answers:
1. Your “carbon footprint” is the sum of all CO2 emissions that your fossil-fueled activities generate directly and indirectly, over a given time. Because you can get them straight from your electric and gas bills, vehicle mileage and flights, they’re the easiest to track, and show your progress. We also track carbon output because it’s generated in quantities that dwarf the other six “bad actor” greenhouse gases (GhG’s), such as methane (CH4), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), even though they are 21 times, 1,000 times and 1,700 times more harmful, respectively, than CO2. For a fuller explanation of GhG’s, and the surprising news that water vapor is the biggest GhG contributor, visit Geocraft (www.geocraft.com/WVFossils/greenhouse_data.html).
But the main reason we track carbon is for efficiency. The world’s economies currently waste up to 10 times more resources than they create, and a key indicator of where waste occurs is the carbon released from energy moving through the system. “Global climate change” has provided a good “stick” to swing at enterprises and policymakers, generating environment-al laws and global private sector efforts such as the Carbon Disclosure Project
(www.cdproject.net), ClimateCounts.org, and Business for Social Responsibility (www.bsr.org), and GOOD GUIDE, a web-based service that collects and certifies the ecological impact of products throughout their supply chains. “Efficiency improvement” is the “carrot” in this mix — basically, learning to use our resources better than we ever imagined possible.
2. So joining the Jewish Climate Challenge helps you make better use of your resources, and benefits your pocketbook, your health, and haolam. We know Americans generate more carbon footprint than anybody else on Earth, and that the more wealthy the person, generally, the more the GhG output.
Jews often tend toward the upper end of the income spectrum, so they create proportionately more footprint. But beyond that, the larger population tends to embrace ideas and fashions generated by their Jewish friends: Nearly 86 percent of kosher food buyers are non-Jews; trends set by Jews in the media (Seinfeld yada yada), sciences (Jonas Salk), engineering, software, art, music and athletics (remember Pete Sampras, king of tennis, and Hank Greenberg, inventor of the first baseman’s mitt?) are readily embraced by the general population. It’s a matter of leverage: we’re well-connected, progressive, and we’re trendsetters.
According to Dr. Steven Windmueller, writing in Jerusalem Viewpoints (No. 509, Dec. 15, 2003), since their arrival in New Amsterdam, Jews have created partnerships between the public and private sectors to help meet core communal religious and social concerns. Jews value political advocacy and communal vigilance, and display a high degree of civic engagement, and passion for politics. They have also developed a civic culture that suggests that a citizen of the society has an obligation to be engaged in its political process. As Rabbi Elazar (Pirke Avot (2:21)) has been quoted: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task; nor are you free to desist from it.”
As we ramp up into a world of carbon taxes, cap and trade schemes, climate exchanges, analyses of carbon footprints by mutual funds (by Trucost, www.trucost.com) and corporations (CDP, see above), it is time to apply activist Eldridge Cleaver’s 1968 words again: “What we’re saying today is that you’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.”
Joining a Carbon Salon, or logging on to the Jewish Climate Challenge, will start you on the road to becoming part of the solution. Yoram Bernet discovered that it was “surprisingly easy to reduce my carbon footprint by 2 percent in a year,” he says. “All I needed was a way to track it.”