What is Climate Justice?
Climate justice is the intersection of environmentalism and social justice. Climate change disproportionately harms low-income communities and colonized communities around the world. These are the people, communities, and countries least responsible for the crisis we face. They suffer climate change’s worst impacts: floods, fires, droughts and the resulting displacement, loss of livelihood, disease, injury, poverty and death. The plants, animals, and wild places of the world suffer too.
The climate justice movement recognizes that the climate emergency exacerbates and is intertwined with many other cruel systems of oppression, including poverty, political exploitation, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and colonization. These forces are rooted in the misuse or abuse of power, people, and the planet by extractive industries, financial institutions, ineffective or corrupt governments, and harmful cultural forces, usually originating in the global North.
We’ve known about climate change for over a century. The causes are crystal clear – burning fossil fuels and deforestation are responsible for more than 90% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change’s impacts are visible everywhere. Droughts, fires, severe storms, and rising sea levels are forcing millions from their homes. Those who are least responsible are suffering the most. This is unjust.
Only changes in these systems and industries that are organized by social movements will address the root causes of climate change at the necessary scale and depth.
No religious tradition says that we should destroy the planet. Grassroots religious groups are setting the bar where it must be set: the level of compassion, justice, and love.
Judaism and Climate Justice
Today, we must place resistance to climate change at the core of our Jewish faith.
A prayer for our earth is not enough. Calling for healing is not enough. Our faith demands kindness. But it also demands that we resist injustice and work to end oppression. And what is the story of the Jewish people if not a story of resistance and a struggle against oppression?
The Torah teaches us that our connection to the Earth is sacred. Humanity is first shaped from the earth itself by God’s hand. Our earliest prophets were shepherds and farmers who understood deeply their responsibility to care for the divine gift of creation. They remembered that the punishment for our early sins was a Great Flood. God promised Noah he would never punish humanity that way again. But God never promised to stop us from doing it to ourselves. That’s up to us. We must take up the responsibility.
If we are to take seriously our Jewish faith, we must take seriously the fight against climate change. We must take seriously the fight against the fossil fuel companies, banks, and governments which are driving this crisis. We must resist the easy path of quoting the Torah on Saturday and accepting the destruction of our climate on Sunday.
That is why we—as Jews, as a chosen people of God—must demand an immediate end to any new oil, coal or gas projects, a phase out of existing fossil fuel projects, and a deep investment in a rapid and just transition to a clean energy future. These are the steps truly needed, according to the science of climate change and the teachings of the Torah and the Talmud. No bridge fuels, no temporary expansions of drilling, no delays. The end of fossil fuels must begin now.
To do less is to break faith—faith with our own neighbors, faith with our children and grandchildren, and faith in God.
It is said that when God was showing Adam and Eve around the Garden of Eden, God said, “This is the last world that I shall create; therefore, take care of it, for there will be nobody after you to repair it.”
God has further said, “If you are planting a tree, and you receive word that the Messiah has arrived, finish planting the tree before you go to meet the Messiah—that is the more important duty.”
Finally, a monarch was traveling through the countryside, when he came upon an old man planting an almond tree. He said to the man, “Why are you spending so much effort to plant this tree—it will not bear fruit for fifty years, by which time you will be gone from this earth?” The man replied, “I found fruit trees awaiting me when I arrived on earth. As my ancestors planted for me, so I plant that future generations will find fruit to eat.”
And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: seed-bearing plants of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that this was good.
(Genesis 1:11-12 NJPS)
Not only one who cuts down food trees, but also one who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or destroys food on purpose violates the command: You must not destroy! (Deut. 20:19).
(Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Book of Judges, Laws of Kings and Wars 6:10.)
“What is good has been explained to you. This is what The Lord asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly and walk humbly with your God.”
(Hebrew Bible, Micah Chapter 6 verse 8)