While many American Jews are committed to social justice issues, climate change is a cause they have been "slow to embrace," a rabbi told a conference in Bala Cynwyd on Sunday.
"Why is climate change not a Jewish issue?" Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin asked the 40 people gathered at Temple Adath Israel for an afternoon program titled "Protecting Creation."
The answer might be that many Jews are focused on causes like civil rights, fair labor, the security of Israel, and the needs of the poor and elderly, Cardin proposed.
"But all these issues will be worsened if we don't get this climate under control," she said, and urged her listeners to become climate activists, too.
The program, convened by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia along with 18 cosponsors, also featured retired Rear Admiral David W. Titley, a former adviser to the Navy on climate.
Titley told his listeners that the urgency of climate change was not about polar bears losing their ice packs.
"This is about you and me, our children, our neighbors, town, state, country, and planet," he said.
And while Cardin, who serves as the sustainability adviser to the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council, cited scripture to make many of her points, Titley relied heavily on scientific evidence.
"How many of you believe in climate change?" he asked. Most hands in the room shot up.
"I don't believe in it," he told them, to the apparent surprise of many.
"Belief" is a product of faith and trust, he explained, whereas he is "convinced" by "compelling and overwhelming evidence that our climate is changing."
The JCRC convened the conference "not because we're expert," council chairman Dan Segal said before the program started, "but because it's a universal problem that should be addressed Jewishly."
It was timed to take place during the United Nations' climate change conference in Paris, which ends Friday.
Judaism has a long commitment to environmental sustainability, Segal added, noting that since ancient times, Jewish farmers have been obliged to let their fields lie fallow every seven years.
The Paris conference has settled on a rough blueprint for controlling greenhouse gas emissions that are a leading cause of global warming, the Associated Press reported, but "numerous loopholes and caveats remain," according to National Public Radio.
"Many involve how much money the wealthier countries will provide to developing countries to help them adapt to climate change and also lower their own emissions of greenhouse gases," NPR said.
Cardin echoed some of Segal's ideas in her remarks.
"Preserving life is so central to Judaism," she said, but the time has come for mankind to embrace a new way of relating to the earth.
"In Genesis, we're told that God told humans . . . to be fruitful and multiply, and have dominion over the Earth," she said.
But the days when humans were vulnerable to the power and dangers of the Earth have past. "In the last 15 years, we've reversed that. Now it's the Earth that's vulnerable," Cardin said.
"What's the solution?" she asked. It can be found in Genesis 2, she said, where Adam and Eve care for the Garden of Eden but must restrain their appetites by not eating from a certain apple tree.
"We're here to enjoy the riches of the Earth, but in a way that preserves and protects it," she said.
Climate change, Titley said, "used to be an issue for environmentalists. Now it's important for issues of national security."
To grasp the issue at its most elemental level, he continued, "think about how climate is changing water.
"Water is salty where it used to be fresh, liquid where it used to be solid," said Titley. "We are changing the chemistry of the oceans."
Now a professor at Pennsylvania State University and director of its Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk, Titley said his interest in the issue began years ago when the head of the Navy asked him to "find out what the body of evidence said" about global warming and "if we should be worried."
He concluded there was much cause for concern, he said, and projected several charts on a screen showing the rise of sea level, the weather-related disaster projections of major insurance companies, and a disturbing sequence of images showing how temperatures have been rising around the world since 1884.
For a century, the white and green zones depicting cooling and static temperatures shared space with the red showing warming. But starting about 30 years ago, the white and green began to decline, and the red zones grew and grew until, in 2012, nearly all the globe showed warming.
Another sequence, using satellite images, showed a rapid decline and near-disappearance of sea ice north of Greenland between 1994 and 2012. "It's not coming back," he said.
While the ice flow above Greenland might not hit home to some people, Titley said, climate change could arguably be a factor in the rise of ISIS, the radical, violent Islamic extremist group that has taken over much of Syria and Iraq.
Syria's longtime dictator, Bashar al-Assad, drained so much of the country's water resources in the 1990s to create agricultural independence for his country, Titley said, that it had nothing to fall back on when a drought began six years ago.
As crops failed, hundreds of thousands of farm families poured into Syria's cities just as these were swelling with refugees from the chaos in Iraq.
"The [Assad] government was not able to care for them. So what happened? ISIS came along and said 'We'll take care of you.' And by now the people were desperate" for rescue. ISIS attracted thousands of devotees and warriors "and we ended up with this horrific situation.
"Climate change was not the cause" of it, Titley added, "but it was one of the necessary components, one of the links in the chain."
Cardin and Titley were followed by Jalonne White-Newsome, a federal policy analyst for WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a New York-based program that monitors the impact of environmental degradation on the poor and minorities.
"Climate change can have really bad impacts on folks," she said. "If you take care of the most vulnerable, you're taking care of a lot of people."