Nipping it in the Bud

orange tree

This blog post originally appeared on the Religious Action Center’s blog.

Ah springtime…the chirping of birds, the buzzing of insects, the budding of trees. But wait a minute. It’s not spring. It’s winter in Brooklyn…it’s 72 degrees out…the tomatoes are still growing in my garden and the poor trees are confused. I’m a little confused myself. I’ve settled in to write an article about Tu BiSh’vat the Jewish holiday, which will be celebrated on January 24-25, 2016 and foretells the coming of springtime in Israel. As an experiential environmental educator, between leading eco activities and Tu BiSh’vat Seders, it’s always been my busy season. I’m used to being greeted with mixed reactions when talking about spring in the midst of icy cold winter weather.

Tu BiSh’vat, referred to as the New Year of the Trees or the Birthday of the Trees, has also been dubbed the Jewish Arbor Day or Jewish Earth Day. It’s a time when the frozen waters start to thaw; as the soil and trees are nourished, they begin to reproduce leaves and seeds. In the Jewish community Tu BiSh’vat is a time for us to embrace our responsibility as stewards of the planet and a natural time to appreciate and be awed by trees. Speaking of embracing, I’ve hugged a few trees in my day. With all that trees do for us, they deserve to be hugged.

While it was hard not to revel in wearing spring-like clothes in winter, we’ve learned over the past few years of erratic weather including 14 of the 15 hottest years on record, which have all occurred since 2000, that there’s a price to be paid. In this case, the budding of trees in December means that the plants and trees’ natural cycles have been thrown off resulting in a shortened flowering season and in some instances, some trees may not flower at all. Fruit trees for example, need to experience a substantial amount of chilling so they will bear fruit. The holiday of Tu BiSh’vat actually began as the cut-off date for collecting taxes on the crop of fruit trees. The Jewish people gave one tenth or a tithing of their harvest to support the sacred work of the temples and to help the poor and those in need. The Jewish principle of bal tashchit is a prohibition against cutting down or destroying trees even as a tactic of war, and specifically forbids the cutting down of fruit-bearing trees. Fruit (food) is a sacred gift and the law forbids needless and wasteful destruction. In our day, the increase of climate-driven extreme weather events such as excessive heat, drought and flooding related to human activity is putting our food sources at risk. Isn’t this a form of wanton destruction?

Trees are our natural partners in so many ways and critical to the sustainability of our planet. There can’t be a serious discussion about slowing down the devastation of climate change without considering the impact of trees, particularly on the heels of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. The second day of the conference focused on trees including carbon sequestration, reforestation, carbon sinks, agribusinesses, logging of old-growth forests and sustainable development of commodities that come from trees. To honor the commitments in the Paris agreement and limit the temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) or possibly 1.5C, the world must not only stop destroying its forests, it must invest in tree regeneration to create a balance between the emissions of greenhouse gases and their removal.

While an agreement may have been reached in Paris, as we reflect on Tu BiSh’vat, we still need to be vigilant. We must hold industry and government accountable by supporting pro-environmental legislation. We need to hold ourselves accountable as well by preserving and conserving our natural resources and taking progressive personal and communal action to nip the causes of climate change in the bud.

 

Still Trying to Imagine

John Lennon

I’m thinking about John Lennon. I’m always thinking about John Lennon. But today especially.

Over the past few weeks, there’s been a confluence of the two major issues I’ve been involved in for 20+ years: climate change and gun violence. I’ve been feeling so overwhelmed by the state of both these issues, it’s been hard to get motivated to write about them. But today is the 35th anniversary of the day John Lennon was killed, so I’m motivated.

Today is also the third night of Chanukah. There’s a natural Chanukah -environment connection. It’s a holiday about oil dependence in the same unstable region of the world that we’ve always had oil issues. It’s also about light at this, the darkest time of the year, which makes it a natural time to think about energy conservation, environmental stewardship and moving away from our unsustainable use of fossil fuels. This year it has even more meaning with the UN Climate Conference in Paris in its 9th day. About 180 countries have submitted emissons reductions plans. The goal is to reach a legally binding agreement to keep global average temperatures from continuing to rise to disastrous levels. As we know, storms with increased intensity, droughts and other catastrophic weather occurrences are impacting our planet, particularly the most vulnerable who are already suffering. This isn’t something in the future. This is happening now.

Climate change is a factor in the surge of refugees and terrorism as well. In Syria, for example there has been a drought for the past six years. As crops failed, there were food shortages. Hundreds of thousands of families who depended on farms ​poured into Syria’s cities, adding to the refugees already fleeing from the chaos in Iraq. The government was incapable of doing anything, making way for militant groups to step in.

We know all too well that intolerance and instability leads to unrest and violence. Not just terrorist acts by outsiders, but homegrown acts of violence made easier by our weak gun laws, which leads me back to John Lennon. It seemed impossible at the time that anyone would want to gun down and murder John Lennon who asked us to Imagine a better world and to give peace a chance. Who would have guessed that 35 years later in America, over 108,000 people a year would be victims of gun violence?

A few weeks ago I went to Washington DC for the 2015 Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence National Summit Lobbying Day and to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the national Million Mom March, which I was a coordinator for in 2000. Following our day of lobbying, we felt exhilirated, not knowing what lie around the corner in a few weeks. On the way back to New York, I updated my blog piece, Triggers, to encourage people to get in touch with their legislators to encourage the expansion of background checks for gun purchases. We had high hopes. But even with these recent tragedies, we’re having trouble getting any traction on legislation for gun safety laws.

If John Lennon had lived, I’m sure he would be just as perplexed as any rational person should be that our country can’t agree on commonsense approaches to both the problem of climate change and gun violence.

Being outraged isn’t #ENOUGH, we need to take action by supporting and voting for legislators and policies that will make a difference.

We learn from the Chanukah story that the little guy can be victorious over the big guy. This Chanukah as we kindle the candles, let’s hope there’s light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Putting a Face on Climate Change

Climate March small

Fourteen years ago I was a local coordinator for the national Million Mom March for sensible gun legislation. At an environmental conference a few months later in Washington, DC, I addressed the group saying that what we needed was a march to protect our planet.

At the Million Mom March we invited families who had lost a loved one to gun violence up to the stage on the Washington Mall. One by one they shared their stories about a parent, a brother, a child who had been killed. Over time, we’ve come to understand that gun violence is an issue of public health. Similarly, I thought at an eco march, we could have individuals whose lives and health had been impacted by environmental degradation and assaults on their air, land and water, tell their stories—all in an effort to put a face on climate change.

Over the past twenty years I’ve been speaking and writing about environmental issues, in particular about the threat of climate change. In all that time it has always been a tough sell. If you see a homeless person, a hungry person or an infirm person, you know there’s a problem. But with climate change, if you can’t see the problem or make an immediate cause and effect connection, it’s easy to pretend it doesn’t exist. Al Gore spoke about humans’ complacency when it comes to global warming in his film, An Inconvenient Truth. He compared it to the cautionary tale of tossing a frog in a pot of boiling water. The frog doesn’t jump out right away because it’s a slow boil.

Over the years I’ve presented on panels with indigenous peoples from low-lying island nations where sea levels are rising, who have lost their livelihoods and/or have been displaced from their homes—climate refugees. I’ve addressed numerous groups and spoken about at-risk people, and I could tell from the audience’s faces that they couldn’t relate to them or to the faraway places they lived. Many of them couldn’t even relate when I talked about our local neighbors: children with asthma, adults with respiratory illnesses and families living in environmental blight. But all that has changed in the past few years. Many of us are now living in vulnerable communities; we’ve become climate refugees. To those who take refuge in NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard), beware; climate change is coming to a neighborhood near you!

Ironically, even though more frequent and severe storms, flooding, drought, disease, dangerously high temperatures and wildfires as a result of extreme weather events, are creating more homeless, hungry and infirm people, and leading to catastrophic loss of life, we still haven’t taken the kind of strong action needed to combat climate change. The climate change deniers, including many U.S. politicians still don’t see the dire need to address this issue. The U.S. continues to contribute disproportionately to the world’s carbon pollution. And by not taking responsibility, our unsustainable energy consumption and wasteful use of resources is contributing to global environmental injustice.

On Sunday, September 21, tens of thousands of people of all ages and from diverse communities including: public health, scientists, faith, veterans, farmers, immigrants, workers, indigenous peoples and our neighbors whose lives have been ravaged by hurricanes and superstorms, will gather together on the streets of New York City for the People’s Climate March.This will be two days before the UN Climate Summit 2014, which will convene world leaders in government, civil society, and the private sector to mobilize support for negotiating a global, legally binding treaty in 2015 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent the worst impacts of climate change and to provide poor and vulnerable populations with significant support to build climate-resilient communities. The march is our wake-up call that climate change is real and that it needs our immediate attention because we are at the tipping point. According to the majority of the world’s scientists, we have already exceeded the safe levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and are therefore experiencing human-caused global warming right now.

There won’t be any speakers at the People’s Climate March the way there was at the Million Mom March in 2000. There won’t be any organized way for people to tell their stories as I had suggested fourteen years ago when I first began thinking about a march like this. But sadly, all these years later I realize that we don’t need to single anyone out, because if we were to put a face on climate change today, the face would be of you and me.

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Just as important as showing up for the march on September 21 is what we are going to do on September 22 and beyond. Check out the events before and beyond the march. Calculate your carbon footprint. Take action to live more sustainably. Get engaged in the issues and vote for legislators who support a healthy, clean, sustainable environment!

To combat climate change, we need to create change.

Sign up and join us at the People’s Climate March!