The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In an era of climate change, a phrase in the Jewish High Holidays liturgy takes on new meaning


I usually instinctively shy away from mixing religion with politics or policy, or my personal life with my professional life. I don’t like it when these worlds collide, but climate change — a central theme of my work for over two decades — and Jewish prayer are suddenly occupying the same space in my mind.

A central part of the liturgy of the Jewish High Holidays — the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and its companion holiday, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) — contains a phrase that is a declaration and a statement of hope: “Repentance, prayer and charity will lessen the severity of the decree.” It’s always struck me that, in the season when Jews pray for a “clean slate,” we declare that we acknowledge our actions can reduce only the severity of the decree, not eliminate it; we are essentially plea bargaining with God and pledging to do community service.

The “severity of the decree” has a particular resonance in the climate arena and is the proper, though unfortunate, frame for any discussion on climate change mitigation.

We have a small sliver of a chance, given the small crack of a window left open and the absolutely expansive chasm between us and success, to avert most of the severity of the decree of a warming planet. Make no mistake, some of the warming is already baked in, some of the decree is already upon us, and further severe consequences are likely no matter what we do. But the gates are not yet closed. If we do not act dramatically and in proportion to the enormous challenge we face, the consequences will continue to worsen; the decree will become increasingly severe.

Climate scientists have given us convenient hash marks on the global thermometer: a warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius brings some damage, a warming of 2 degrees brings more. If we focus only on 1.5 or 2 degrees, it’s a lose-lose proposition, as our odds of holding there are not zero but painfully low. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a Pollyanna. But 2.5 degrees? A worse outcome. Four degrees? Way worse! The severity of those decrees are of biblical proportions.

Will repentance, prayer and charity work? God, no. But, if “repentance” means assuming personal responsibility for your own carbon footprint and taking actions to reduce it, such as buying new home insulation, getting new energy-efficient appliances, driving less and driving cars that produce less emissions, then repent. If “prayer” means imploring higher authorities to act beneficently, such as telling your elected leaders — at all levels of government — to pledge to work toward net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, with major action starting immediately, then pray. If “charity” means not just donating to nongovernmental organizations that work toward reducing carbon (there are many deserving ones!) but also being willing to pay a little more for zero carbon energy, then give. Yes, of course, there are many opportunities for economic growth and job creation from new technologies, but, no, clean energy is not without cost and not always cheaper than fossil.

Is that it? Buy a new air conditioning unit, send an email to your congressman and donate to the Natural Resources Defense Council, and you’re absolved? Nope. One of the more famous elements of modern Jewish thought is the concept of “tikkun olam,” or repairing the world. The concept usually refers to acts of justice, loving, kindness and righteousness. In the context of climate change, “world repair” becomes quite a bit more literal. Tikkun olam is never a one-off but rather a long process of continuous, concerted, intentional action. If we are to repair our world, we need shepherds and flocks — leaders who will galvanize action, and prophets and adherents — scientists with new research and development, and entrepreneurs with new businesses based on that research and development. We need commandments and judges along with reward and punishment: enforceable new laws that penalize carbon emissions and provide incentives for reducing them. We need temples: massive new infrastructure projects that we can be proud of and that symbolize our new communal and national determination. We also need practices and ritual: new ways of going about our daily lives that reflect a responsibility to reduce carbon. To literally repair the world, and lessen the severity of the decree, we must use all our strength and all our hearts.

Michael Leifman is the founder of Tenley Consulting, a D.C.-based consulting firm focused on clean energy and technological innovation, and the co-host of M4Edge, a podcast on start-ups that have the potential to change how the economy functions. He also serves as cantor for some of the High Holiday services at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington.