THE BLOG
10/04/2013 02:08 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

A Rising Tide Floats One Boat: Noah's Response to Climate Change

Noah is told by a highly creditable source (God) that climate change (40 days and nights of rain) will cause a dramatic rise in sea level (the Flood) which will, in turn, cause enormous loss of life. Noah's response may provide guidance for us. We too have been told by a highly creditable source (science) that climate change (global warming) will cause a dramatic rise in sea level (plus many other problems) which will, in turn, cause enormous loss of life.

Biodiversity v. Biomass

Noah is often portrayed as an animal-lover, but that is a mistake. He does not try to save as many animals as possible. Leaving the elephants behind would make room for dozens of dogs, for example, but Noah does not take this option. Nor does Noah privilege higher animals over lower ones, or pets and domestic animals over wild animals. Instead, he tries to preserve species. Noah maximizes the variety of animals saved rather than their number, rationality, or usefulness to humanity.

As climate change comes crashing down upon us, we will face many hard choices between saving species and saving individual animals. Should we follow Noah's lead? Noah's values are currently controversial, and sound rather heartless. Could it really be right to let a multitude of near-rational, highly-useful animals die in order to preserve a few members of an endangered species of scorpion? On the other hand, preserving a wide variety of species contributes to the environment in a way that preserving numerous individuals of the same species does not. Reasonable people can be found on both sides of this question, and indeed many people will see that both sides have a point. This moral dilemma is a toughie, and there is no shame in feeling conflicted. Rather than resolving the dilemma, I shall use it to illuminate Noah's other choice. What should Noah do about the predicted extermination of almost all humans?

Survivalist v. Social Action

At first glance Noah seems to have no choice about either animals or people. After all, Noah is specifically instructed by God to save pairs of animals, plus himself and his family members (Gen 6:18-20).

Moreover, God does tell Noah that no one else on earth is righteous. But God is surely speaking in sweeping generalizations. At minimum, there are babies to be saved. Moreover, while leopards can't change their spots, people can repent.

So rabbinic commentators generally, and rightly blame Noah for meekly acceding to God's instructions. Just following orders -- even God's orders -- is no defense. Why doesn't Noah plead for the rest of mankind, as Abraham pleads for Sodom (Gen 18:20-32) and Moses pleads for the Israelites (Ex 32:9-13)? Why doesn't he urge the rest of mankind to plead for themselves, as Jonah urges the people of Nineveh (Jonah 3:4-9)? Why doesn't he save at least some other people despite God's instructions, as Joshua saves the people of Gibeon (Joshua 9:3-21)?

Perhaps Noah makes unrecorded, unsuccessful attempts to do these things. But following the rabbinic commentators, let us suppose that Noah does not try. On this assumption, Noah's approach to people parallels his approach to animals. Save a representative remnant rather than as many people as possible. And that remnant might as well be Noah, himself, and his family. Now whatever its merits with respect to animals, this is an appalling way to think about human beings.

Noah adopts a survivalist attitude to a predicted disaster. He retreats into a (floating) sealed shelter to save himself and his family. He hunkers in his bunker, abandoning everyone else. This is selfishness, not self-reliance. Noah offers us a stark example of what not to do.

Alternatively, a social action response to predictions of disaster attempts to avert or mitigate the disaster through cooperation. An earthquake is a nightmare when buildings are not up to code, but if reasonable regulations have been enforced, then an earthquake becomes merely a scary hassle. A power outage is terrifying if people start looting and shooting, but when people stay calm, act right, and help each other, a power outage is downgraded from a catastrophe to a hardship. Similarly, had Noah warned and organized other people, events might have unfolded quite differently. A predicted deluge is not a disaster if widespread penitential prayer averts it, or if everyone just jumps into their hastily-constructed, waiting arks.

Now as then, survivalists consider climate change -- like earthquakes and power outages, (and stock market crashes and oil spills?) -- to be a disaster. No one is responsible; these things just happen. And the survivalists' response is "every man for himself." By contrast, the social action perspective takes climate change to be a problem that we can do something about if we work together. Climate change plus inadequate attempts to avert and respond is a disaster. Thus, if (when?) climate change catches us unprepared, we will be responsible.

Let us avoid the survivalist mentality, rise to a higher standard than Noah, accept responsibility, and take social action in the face of scientific predictions of potentially disastrous climate change.