Let’s Get Back to the Future

Let’s Get Back to the Future

Almost every high-level Jewish leader is on record in support of fighting to minimize the impact of climate change, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and developing renewable energy technologies. The benefits of these steps to the environment and to Israel are abundantly clear, as are the risks of inaction. By dumping carbon emissions into the atmosphere, we’re on course to create environmental, economic, and humanitarian damage on a large scale. And as the data continues to accumulate, it’s clear that time is not on our side.

The earliest Jewish teachings support protection of the environment. In Genesis I, v. 26-28, we are given dominion over the earth and all that lives thereon. The word “dominion” carries with it our clear obligation to be stewards and protectors of the resources bestowed on us by our Creator. The doctrine of bal tashchit – do not waste or destroy – is a fundamental Jewish value, and one that we are required to observe.

For most of the last decade, New Jersey has been a national model for energy policies that largely are consistent with these values and that create economic and environmental benefits. But that course has been reversed since 2010.

When it comes to our state’s energy policies, we need to get back to the future – now.

Founded in 2003, the New Jersey Clean Energy Program, funded by utility ratepayers through a tiny societal benefits charge added to each utility bill, has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into energy efficiency and conservation projects, renewable energy development, and assistance for low-income ratepayers statewide.

Thanks to this program, New Jersey has the largest amount of solar electricity production per capita of any state in the country, and out-of-state businesses have invested millions in New Jersey’s burgeoning solar industry. More than 15,000 solar arrays have been installed in the state to date, and the state processes more than 100,000 rebates for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects annually. This is a record to be proud of.

In 2007, the state took another important step forward by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – RGGI for short. RGGI, a compact among 10 mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states, is a market-based program that sets limits on power plant emissions of greenhouse gases and requires polluters to pay for their emissions. RGGI then re-directs these payments to support clean energy and energy efficiency projects that make our air cleaner while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Independent research shows that since 2009, New Jersey has seen a net economic benefit from RGGI of more than $150 million, with RGGI creating over 1,700 jobs in the state. During a severe recession, these numbers are meaningful.

RGGI and the Clean Energy Program are the kinds of efforts that are needed to create the energy future we need.

In the last two years, however, Gov. Christie has withdrawn New Jersey from RGGI – making us the only one of the participating states to do this – and has diverted more than $400 million from the Clean Energy Program into the state’s general revenue stream. Remember, these revenues aren’t state tax revenues. They are taken directly from utility ratepayers specifically to support clean energy projects. While we know the state’s budget is tight, this is wrong. Environmental groups have opposed these measures, as has GreenFaith, a national religious-environmental coalition based here in New Jersey.

We must take seriously our assigned role in tikkun olam, working in partnership with the Creator to repair our imperfect world. Every Jew knows the phrase “l’dor vador” – “from generation to generation.” It’s a phrase we use to describe the transmission of what’s most important within our communities – from old to young, over and over and over again. It’s a statement of reality and continuity, of obligation and hope.

And today it’s a statement about the environment.

If we want to pass on a healthy planet to coming generations, we can’t afford to backslide on climate change policies – especially when they work. That’s why it’s so important that New Jersey get back into RGGI and that the Clean Energy Program be allowed to do its job.

Without these efforts, and more like them, the future is bleak. If we want l’dor vador to be a statement of hope for a strong tomorrow, we need to push for decisive, consistent action on climate change. We need it today.

Never before has our impact on the planet been so consequential, particularly for those who come after us. Rarely have our collective decisions mattered so much to our grandchildren. We’ve got to find our way past the sense that action on climate change can be delayed, that the climate crisis plausibly can be denied, and that inaction is acceptable. Here in New Jersey we’ve had policies and efforts in the past that have done just that.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “There are three ways we may relate ourselves to the world. We may exploit it, we may enjoy it, or we may accept it in awe.” Unfortunately, too often we have chosen the first way. Our faith requires that through our actions we choose to follow the other two pathways.

That’s why we need to get back to the future.