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Social Justice and Climate Change

By Rabbi Jill Jacobs

The rabbis of the Talmud ask the following question: When the people of a town decide to build or repair a guard wall, how much should each resident pay? Perhaps the wealthiest residents should pay the most, as they can best afford to shoulder the burden. On the other hand, maybe the people who live closest to the wall should pay more as they will benefit most, since thieves or murderers who enter the town are likely to target the first houses they encounter.


“But wait,” the residents of these wall-hugging homes may complain, “we would never have bought these houses if we could have afforded to live in the middle of town, where it’s safe.”


“That’s true for some of you,” the wealthy residents may respond. “But some of you chose to live near the edge of the city just because you like it there.” Or: “We don’t even need the wall — we feel safe enough already.”


While the Talmudic discussion (Bava Batra 7b) remains indecisive, most commentators conclude that the wealthiest residents should contribute the most, regardless of where they live. And only in the case in which two people have an identical household income should proximity to the walls be factored into the calculation of responsibility.  (For example, see Rabbenu Tam, Maggid Mishnah on Rambam, Mishnah Torah Hilkhot Sh’khenim 6:4, and Joseph Caro, Beit Yosef Choshen Mishpat 163:3.)


This Talmudic discussion comes to mind when I think about who bears the burden of our environmental choices.


When we think about climate change, we often think in terms of dramatic shifts in the natural world: melting glaciers, heat waves, tornadoes and earthquakes. One might think that changes in nature affect us all equally. But in fact, poor and non-white populations — both in the United States and around the world — disproportionately pay the price for our overuse of natural resources.


For example:

  • People without access to air conditioning or cars are far more likely to die during heat waves, which are hotter and more frequent because of climate change;
  • Decreases in crop production because of climate change may result in low-wage agricultural workers losing their jobs;
  • By 2030, 17 million Bangladeshis may become homeless due to cyclones and flooding, all worsened because of climate change;
  • By 2080, more than 290 million more Africans may contract malaria due to the increased mosquito breeding grounds in Africa anticipated as a result of climate change.


While the wealthiest individuals, corporations, and nations use far more than their share of our natural resources, the poorest individuals and nations will pay the price in lives, health-care costs and a decline in their standards of living.


On a local level, low-income communities in the United States already suffer physically and financially from smaller-scale environmental decisions. For example, substandard housing stock and the nearby placement of waste-transfer stations, bus depots, factories and power plants all contribute to high levels of asthma among low-income children. Asthma, in turn, leads to missed days of school, missed work for parents, high medical bills — and, in some cases, death. And hazardous-waste plants, chemical-producing factories and mountaintop-removal mining practices all lead to high levels of cancer and other diseases in low-income communities.


Do we allow those who live “close to the wall,” as Talmudic parlance would have it, pay the cost for our overconsumption? Or will we take the rabbinic challenge, and insist that those with more resources take greater responsibility for protecting the health and safety of everyone in our communities? And how much are we willing to pay to guarantee that everyone can live in health and economic security?


Many Jewish communities already have engaged in greening projects. We have changed the light bulbs in our homes and synagogues. We have installed the solar ner tamid — eternal light — in our sanctuaries. We have stopped printing newsletters.


All of these greening projects are important. But they are not enough. If we are to save lives, we also must get out of our buildings and fight for environmental legislation that protects the lives and the livelihoods of the most vulnerable. This means ensuring that low-income neighborhoods aren’t burdened with more than their fair share of waste transfer stations, incinerators, power plants and other sources of pollution — even if this means accepting that some of these structures may pop up in wealthier neighborhoods. This means working for stricter environmental controls on corporations, which use far more resources than either private households or Jewish institutions. And this means talking to our elected representatives about why we, as Jews, believe that business interests should not take priority over the health, safety and prosperity of ordinary people.


You may have changed your light bulbs, but now it’s time to change the laws. The wealthiest among us — corporations and individuals — need to step up and take responsibility for the effect their decisions have on the poorest among us. Like the city dwellers of the Talmud, we need to protect the lives of everyone living in our communities.




Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the executive director of T'ruah (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights-North America). She has been named to The Forward’s list of 50 influential American Jews and to Newsweek’s list of the 50 most influential rabbis in America.

This piece is part of the Jewish Energy Guide, published in partnership with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.




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