“400 Parts Per Million”

A few weeks ago, a news alert popped up on my phone.  Usually when this happens, I know I’m going to read bad news: there’s been a terrorist attack, there’s been another shooting in our country, Donald Trump said…something.  When I receive a notice like this, typically I take a look at the headline, and then put the phone away, promising myself that I’ll read the full article when I have more time.  This alert was different.  This one said that the measuring site in Mauna Loa, Hawaii reported that levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere had risen above the figure of 400 parts per million, and were likely to stay that way for the indefinite future.  I stared at that alert for a while and clicked the link to read on.  The article explained that in recent years, the monitoring stations had reported some periods when CO2 levels had climbed above, and dipped below, 400 parts per million, but that this new study suggests that we’ve now stopped dipping below completely.

Okay, so it had been a long time since I sat in science class, so I don’t really know what 400 parts per million means, but it doesn’t sound good.  Here’s some help: in the 18th century, CO2 levels were about 280 parts per million.  By the mid 20th century, it was 315 parts per million, and now we’re at 400 parts per million.  Why is this important?  Since 1861, scientists have known that carbon dioxide levels directly affect the regulation of temperature on the earth.  That is because carbon dioxide molecules in the air absorb infrared radiation from the sun, and when there is a high concentration, there is literally a blanket of CO2 that prevents the heat and radiation from escaping back into space, keeping it trapped in our atmosphere.  This has come to be known as the “greenhouse” effect, mimicking how a greenhouse, or even a car, gets super-hot in the summer sun, because the glass, just like CO2, absorbs radiation and thus the heat cannot escape.  We know it’s been getting hotter in our little greenhouse or in our car, but this past month, it reached a new level and will not dip back down.


So where is all this CO2 coming from?  Well, back in the days of the Industrial Revolution, mid 18th to 19th century, we started to burn coal, burn natural gas, and burn oil, so that we could create industry!  Machines, cars, power plants, factories, all started burning these “fossil fuels,” that used to be in the ground, and now got sent up into the atmosphere.  In other words, friends, the CO2 levels rising comes from us, and thus the rising temperatures of our planet? That’s our fault.


“Who cares if it’s a little hot?” You may say, “I’ve got to drive my car, and go to work making all the things this economy needs!”  Well, as the temperature rises on our planet, the amount of moisture evaporating from the land and water starts to increase, leaving less water on our planet.  We saw this directly with the California drought, which, if you’re concerned about the economy, cost the state of California $2.7 billion, and 21,000 jobs.  California may be what we’re talking about now in terms of drought, but rest assured, it’s coming for us next, as NASA scientists predict a decades-long “mega-drought” in our world, due to melting glaciers and snowpacks.  With droughts drying out the land and killing plant life, we get wildfires (which, by the way, have caused 62 million tons of CO2 themselves since 1990) destroying 9 million acres of land, destroying homes, killing wildlife, and even our fellow human beings, some trying desperately to fight the fire.  And let’s not forget about flooding, friends.  With drought comes soil that can’t absorb rain fast enough and thus extreme storms, sudden downpours, rushing waters, and floods occur. For our economists, from 1980 to 2014, flooding in the United States caused $88 billion dollars in damages.


What else?  Ah yes, hurricanes.  As our friends in across the Caribbean and in Florida hide in their bathrooms and board up their windows this week due to Hurricane Matthew, they should know that because of climate destabilization, hurricanes are set to become 20% stronger, making higher winds, stronger storm surges, which we all know too well here can cause terrible damage, and the loss of life.


So, as I was saying, I got this alert on my phone.  And all I could muster was, “may our children forgive us.”  And I hope that Asher forgives me for not doing more, and that the next generation forgives our generation for not doing more.  I say this because while climate destabilization is reducible and reversible, we’re running out of time for that window.  We are seeing some hopeful signs from our world leaders that are attempting to reduce carbon emissions, but there are some very real and scary barriers in our way.  We hear them all the time: the deniers, the ideas that it’s a hoax, and the outright denial of science and scientific research replaced by ignorant and oversimplified ideas of creationism and trust in God.  Let’s be clear on this, friends, God has nothing to do with this.  God didn’t build factories and cars that emit CO2, we did.  God didn’t cut down 1.27 million square miles of Earth’s wilderness (that’s 10% by the way), we did.  God didn’t devastate 93% of the Great Barrier Reef, we did.  And God will have nothing to do with a quarter of our species projected to be extinct by 2050. God will have nothing to do with the millions of people relocating due to rising sea levels, including 13 million Americans, estimated by 2100.  And while our climate denying religious zealots are praying for the rapture, we’re here stuck trying to pick up the pieces, realizing that more is at stake than just ourselves.  Our children and grandchildren will be left with possibly an irreversibly dying Earth. 


So, why talk about this tonight?  Tonight is Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Return.  We’re in that middle-ground between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, wherein we are supposed to turn our souls around from sin, and turn our lives around to righteousness.  We’re supposed to ask for forgiveness from God, from our friends, and from ourselves, and forgive those around us.  It’s important.  It really is.  Please don’t think I’m minimizing the power of this week for Jews all over the world.  But I have to ask, what good is it to go around asking forgiveness while ignoring the fact that the planet upon which we live is dying?  “I forgive you, but gosh it’s hot!”  In other words, this year, after passing 400 parts per million in CO2 levels, we can’t just go on doing what we’ve always done.  We can’t ignore the change in our climate anymore, nor should we have before, because sooner or later our children or grandchildren won’t be able to sit where you are sitting, won’t be able to look inwardly and outwardly, and make their lives better, because they probably won’t be able to live on this island anymore due to rising sea levels, super typhoons, and dangerous heat.


This Shabbat Shuva, we have to do another kind of turn. We have to return our focus from being just on ourselves to our future, and our Earth.  Asking for forgiveness is a start, it’s a good start, especially to ask forgiveness from God, who I imagine is just as upset as we are.  But then what?  Go back to work after Yom Kippur and hope for the best?  Not this year.  This year, starting today, the Shabbat of Return, we’re going to reduce our own carbon footprints.  We’re going to walk or ride a bike when we can, or even take a bus.  We’re going to look to buying a low carbon vehicle when we get our next car, as electric cars emit zero CO2 if they’re charged with clean energy.  We’re going to call up our buddy Pete Rosen at ProSolar and get those solar panels we’ve been thinking about.


“Rabbi, come on, who’s got the time or the money?” I can hear everyone thinking. Okay, how about this?  We can insulate and seal our homes, reducing drafts and air leaks.  We can get more efficient appliances, we can turn off lights when we leave rooms, we can use less water, we can even cut down on eating beef and dairy.  And you know what else we can do, something that we at The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas can spearhead?  We can start island-wide recycling programs here on St. Thomas.  29% of US Greenhouse gas emissions result from manufacturing, transporting, and the disposal of products and packaging.  We can advocate for change right here in our little island.  We can write legislation, we can make phone calls to elected officials, we can host rallies, and start programs to lead by example— you know that whole “light unto the nations” thing we hear about so often.


The point is, friends, the High Holidays aren’t just about us anymore, they’re not just about self-improvement anymore.  They can’t be.  If anything, these days of awe should be the days that we do the most for our world.  The sound of the Shofar is supposed to wake up our souls; but the sound this year and every year ahead should wake us up and remind us of our work to correct the mistakes of our past and reversing the destruction of our planet. When we beat our chests for Ashamnu, we should remember that near the heart we beat is our lungs, which take in oxygen and keep us alive. When we cry out Avinu Malkeinu Sh’ma Koleinu—Our parent, our ruler, hear our voices—we should hope that the voices God hears are speaking of promises to help God’s creations live.  And when we chant Kol Nidre, the ancient prayer that asks that all of our vows be absolved…we should remember that there is one vow that cannot be absolved this year: the vow that we will make on this Shabbat Shuva, this Sabbath of Return.  The vow to do our part to reverse carbon emissions, to fight against climate change denial, and band together as one people and heal this world, protecting it, and keeping it safe for our children and grandchildren, so that they, too, can sit in these pews and continue the work.  May that vow never be absolved, and may that work never be done.

L’shana Tova.



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