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Noah, the Flood and Climate Change

Back in June, Liz and I moved from Elkins Park to Center City. The move went smoothly and, luckily, our new place came with our own parking spot, the key to happy urban living. Block by block, store by store, coffee shop-by-coffee shop, we learned our way around town. Then in the middle of September, Hurricane Ida struck the Philadelphia area and much of Center City, along the Schuylkill River went under water and the Vine Street Expressway literally became a medieval-like moat.

Hurricane Ida, a Category 4 storm, formed on August 26, 2021 hit the Louisiana coast and worked its away diagonally across the United States leaving over $50 Billion in damages and 115 dead. All things considered, our area, although hard hit, escaped the worst of the storm’s fury. From Philadelphia, it continued on its northeast course and finally dissipated off the Atlantic coast of Canada. Our main local grocery store was closed for weeks and tons of mud were piled up along Kelly Drive but it could have been much worse.

Every time there is an epic storm, it is only natural to think about the Biblical story of Noah, which happens to be this week’s Torah portion. In the Book of Genesis, humanity’s evil ways provoke a cataclysimic divine reaction and the whole world is flooded. Noah is called upon to save the animals and humanity. I guess only the fish remained unscathed before the Ark came to rest on Mt. Ararat in what is now SE Turkey. The Biblical story ends with a report of a great rainbow and a promise that God promises never to wipe out all of humanity by flooding the earth.

However, in our own time, despite the regular appearances of rainbows, there is much less certainty about the future and consequences of global flooding. Scientists are increasingly alarmed at the rate at which the polar ice caps are now melting – approximately 6x faster than in the 1990s. Overall, the greatest melting is in the Artic Circle (and Greenland) although there is even some evidence ice cap increase in the southern hemisphere, which contains 70% of the world’s fresh water. The overall effect is that conservatively speaking “sea levels are currently rising by 3.6mm per year” and that rate is increasing over time. Considering most of the world’s major population centers are coastal, the consequences of a future Noah size flood are easy to imagine even if you are not a Hollywood movie producer.

In the Biblical story, the reason for the flood was divine wrath at human misbehavior. In modern times, the issue is the relationship between human behavior and climate change, particularly rising air and sea temperatures, leading to ice melting and rising sea levels not to mention increasingly erratic weather patterns. Climate change deniers insist that human behavior is not implicated in climate change and believe that it is a natural process. On the other hand, the vast majority of climate scientists believe humanity is significantly impacting the environment and the climate and at an accelerated and dangerous rate.

The question is what to do about our changing weather and rising sea levels? Is there some kind of “policy ark” we should be building and whether or not we should be planning on infrastructure changes to keep cities like New York, Miami and Philadelphia from sinking into the sea or nearby tidal river? While some people still cynically believe that climate change is a fabricated political strategy, there is plenty of evidence that many sectors in industry are moving toward sustainability, which is not only an energy strategy but also recognition of the dangers of climate change. For sure, the number of electric and hybrid cars is rising as well as propane public buses. More and more people are limiting their red meat consumption and others are learning about urban gardening.

Even more telling is a report issued by the United States Department of Defense just yesterday (October 7, 2021). In a 32-page document issued by the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wrote, “climate change is an existential threat to our nation’s security, and [we] must act swiftly and boldly to take on this challenge and prepare for damage that cannot be avoided.” Our military, the report continues, “aims to transition … into an agency that can handle and operate within ever increasing hurricanes, wildfire, heat, drought and floods.”

Noah built an ark. The US military is contingency planning. What can we do as a congregation and as individuals? First, we need to be less wasteful in our lifestyle. Second, we can seek out sustainable sources of energy for our homes and modes of transportation. Interestingly, a huge network of windmills are being planned off the East Coast of the US to create clean electricity. Third, we can grow our own food and compost just like we are doing at KI. Fourth, we can invest in companies that will help heal our environment. Fifth, we can commit ourselves to educating ourselves about our environment and its future. Finally, we can think deeply about the meaning of progress in our times. Perhaps, we have arrived at a moment when in so many areas of life, less is actually more.

In the Noah story in the Torah this week, humanity is promised that there will never be another universal flood. I hope that is true. Meanwhile, it’s probably time for us to start building modern day arks to save humanity and our planet from our unsustainable way of life.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.